The Call of Abraham

Kugel sets for the questions – What was so special and unique about Abraham, was he the first monotheist, and did he actually exist? The argument is supported as Kugel discussed Abraham as someone who recognizes, although his culture is set against monotheistic thinking, that Someone has to be in charge of the wonderous universe because what is known about astronomy at the time, which was a great deal by the Chaldeans, cannot have produced itself nor can it be self-governing, as suggested by Josephus. These would be statements of faith rather than evidence; however, it adds to that potential nature of the person upon whom we are reflecting. What would a man of faith at that time in antiquity consider in order to validate why he was leaving his entire culture behind for Someone he cannot see, but for a knowing in his heart? Provocative…

The Qur’an, Milton, Philo, and Josephus sing the praises of monotheistic Abraham.  The evidence, however, suggests that based on the Documentary Hypothesis, it is plausible to consider some revisionism has taken place that calls into question Abraham’s narrative (Kugel, 2007, p. 96).  “They believed that someone (that is, J or E) who lived long after Abraham, indeed, long after the people of Israel had settled in Canaan, made up these stories in order to justify that settlement: the Abraham narrative, they said, was designed to claim that although Israel’s illustrious ancestor had arrived in Canaan from a distant region, he was no mere squatter or land grabber; God Himself had granted the land to Abraham” (Kugel, 2007, p. 96). The findings at Nuzi and Mari seem to add validity to the Abraham narrative, the latter, only scantly. 

Albright, an academic turned archeologist developed an American school of archaeologists who believed in (figuratively), “’going out to do fieldwork’ with the spade in one hand and the Bible in the other” (Kugel, 2007, p. 98).  Through their careful examination of artifacts, it was learned/assumed that Abraham, was probably a wealthy ‘donkey caravaneer’ who went west to Canaan and eventually made it his home” (Kugel, 2007, p. 100). Albright’s school laid the foundation for scholars to work through various aspects of ambiguity related to Abraham such as how his wife could also be his sister through an ancient adoption practice and how Abraham could have secured the loan from Eliezer.  Even so, “scholars have noted the absence of any reference to Abraham in the writings of Israel’s eighth- and seventh-century prophets” Kugel, 2007, p. 102).  This is concerning because it is thought that these prophets would certainly have mentioned him in their writings.  One researcher proposes that for this reason, Abraham was not someone who existed, and that he was a later invention.  In favor of this hypothesis is the questioning of Wellhausen’s work – was it as old as presumed?  (Kugel, 2007, p. 102-103).  

Many scholars now believe that Abraham’s narrative was transmitted orally and question the veracity of claims about the historicity of the ancient material.  In all of this, “One matter on which there is general agreement among modern scholars is that of Abraham the monotheist” (Kugel, 2007, p. 103).  While Albright’s work added a potentially supportive dimension to the story, with plausible cultural features, does this “prove” Abraham actually existed?  For me, it does not.  The evidence suggests that there is much room to question.

James Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now (Free Press, 2008) ISBN-13:978-0743235877

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