Karl Marx once observed that ancient Greek art, rooted in Greek mythology, still constituted for modern people “a source of aesthetic enjoyment and in certain respects prevails as the standard and model beyond attainment.” He asked: “Why should the social childhood of mankind, where it has obtained its most beautiful development, not exert an eternal charm as an age that will never return?”
(In other words, even though Marx’s beloved Homer and Aeschylus were products of a society long extinct, its slave-owning class structure abhorrent to the modern mind, Greek myths still retain profound meanings for us in the age of industrial capitalism. Sigmund Freud, who posited the Oedipus and Elektra complexes, would of course agree.)
The story of Prometheus, for example, delighted the young Marx. Recall that Prometheus was the Titan who, having sided with Zeus and the gods of Mt. Olympus in the epochal battle with the other Titans at the dawn of time, later steals fire from Mt. Olympus and gives it to humanity. That, at least, is Hesiod’s account written about 700 BCE. In punishment for this generous act, Zeus and the other gods punish Prometheus by chaining him to a rock on a mountain in the Caucasus where an eagle visits daily to chew on his liver.
In his doctoral dissertation Marx declared this god “the most eminent saint and martyr in the philosophical calendar.” He quoted the words of Prometheus in Aeschylus’s play Prometheus Unbound: “In a word, I hate all the gods!” He interpreted Prometheus as a revolutionary boldly defying cruel, oppressive authority. I would say it’s a positive myth, promoting altruism and self-sacrifice.
The ancient Chinese myth of the winged “thousand-li horse” who gallops too swiftly for any man to mount, has been embraced by the North Koreans (in the form of Chollima) as a symbol of rapid economic development. I have no problem with this myth either.
I don’t really have a problem with the ancient Sumerian myth, as found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the gods are so annoyed with human noisiness that they decide to wipe them (and all other life) out by a global flood. Fortunately the god Ea warns the righteous man Utnapishtim about what is going to happen and orders him to build a huge boat. Utnapishtim does so, and has his relatives and craftsmen, and “all the beasts and animals of the field” board the boat. Seven days and seven nights of rainfall follow. The boat lands on Mt. Nimush. When the rains end Utnapishtim sends out a dove to search for dry land; the bird returns. But the third bird dispatched does not return, signaling that the crisis was over.
Sound familiar? It is surely an early version of the myth of Noah and the Ark (Genesis 6:5-8:14), which is at least 1000 years younger. (The earliest Sumerian references to the flood myth appear during the Third Dynasty of Ur, ca. 2100-2000 B.C.) The biblical myth differs significantly in adapting the story to a monotheistic framework and making the issue human sin as opposed to boisterous clamor. The myth causes one to think about human vulnerability to natural disasters, and has of course been the inspiration of much western art and cinematography.
But the Hebrew version includes a spin-off myth that is not so charming. This is the myth of Ham, one of Noah’s three sons, who after the Flood receives his father’s curse. Noah tells him that he (and by implication, his progeny) will be enslaved by his brother Shem (Genesis 9:20-27).
Why? Because Noah—“the first to plant the vine,” introducing wine to the world—was found passed out drunk and naked in his tent by Ham, who told his brothers, who covered Noah with a cloak. When Noah sobered up and realized what had happened, he (for some reason) declared that Ham will henceforth be “the meanest slave” of his brothers Shem and Japheth.
For centuries many Jews and Christians believed that all the world’s peoples were descended from these three brothers, who supposedly with their wives repopulated the planet beginning around 4300 years ago. Japheth was seen as the father of Europeans, and maybe some others; Shem, the father of Semites, and maybe Asian peoples in general; and Ham, the peoples of Cush, Put and Sheba among others—which is to say, black African peoples (Genesis 10:6-7).
The Jewish Midrash texts (composed from the fifth through fifteenth centuries) explained that the curse of Ham only applies to eldest son Cush and his descendents in sub-Saharan Africa. Among Muslim thinkers, the Persian Muhammad ibn Jaririr al-Tabari (839-923) and the famous North African world-traveler Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) both repeated this myth linking Han to black slaves (although it doesn’t appear in the Qu’ran and plainly enters Islamic lore via medieval Jewish tradition).
For centuries he myth helped justify the traffic in African slaves of both Jewish and Muslim merchants in the Islamic world and beyond. (Some of these were referred to as Zanj—as in “Zanzibar”—and rose up in a great revolt around Bara in the ninth century.) By the early nineteenth-century, in the U.S.A. the Ham myth was part of the standard arsenal of arguments in support of slavery. It strikes me as a bad myth. It’s hard to think of one more pernicious.
But here’s another one: the myth of Samson, as we find in the Book of Judges, chapters 14 through 16. Samson is the last of the “judges” chosen by Yahweh (God) to lead his chosen people before the advent of the monarchy. He supposedly lives around 1000 BCE, although this account is composed maybe four centuries later.
You may know the story, if only from Sunday School, the 1949 Cecile B. DeMille film Samson and Delilah, recent novels by David Grossman and Ginger Gerrett, and countless artistic depictions.
Samson, according the Bible, is born to a hitherto barren woman and her husband after Yahweh appears to the woman in a dream and announces she will have a son who will “start rescuing Israel from the power of the Philistines” (Judges 13:5). (As you may know, the word “Philistine” is related to the word “Palestine.”) But she is to make sure that no razor ever touches his head; it becomes clear that his long hair is the source of his superhuman strength. God appears repeatedly to both husband and wife in dreams, and then in the flames of an altar sacrifice (13:20). The boy is born, given his name, and Yahweh blesses him.
This boy Samson grows up to be an extremely violent man. He craves a Philistine bride, refusing his family’s appeal that he wed a fellow Israelite. (They don’t realize that “all this came from Yahweh, who was seeking grounds for a quarrel with the Philistines, since at this time the Philistines dominated Israel,” 14:4.) En route to her home near the vineyards of Timnah, Samson is attacked by a lion that he tears apart with his bare hands. He visits the Philistine woman and while returning home revisits the lion carcass. He discovers that a swarm of bees has settled inside it and produced honey He takes some of this and presents it to his parents.
He contracts the marriage deal with the woman’s relatives, and arranges a great wedding feast. He is given an entourage of 30 Philistines, with whom he makes a sort of wager at the feast. He proposes that he give the men a riddle, and if they can solve it within seven days he will give them thirty pieces of linen and thirty festal robes. If they cannot, they will have to give the same to him. They agree, and (alluding to his recent feat, which he has kept secret) he asks them to explain this:
Out of the eater came what was eaten,
And out of the strong came what was sweet (14:14).
Unable to solve the riddle, the men go to Samson’s new wife and threaten to burn her and her father’s family to death if she doesn’t wheedle out the solution to it from her husband. She does so, and an enraged Samson, accusing the thirty of having “ploughed with my heifer,” goes on a rampage. He kills 30 innocent Philistines, stealing their clothes to pay the debt he’s incurred. When he returns with the loot, the father declares that in the interim he’d given his bride to another, Samson in another rage incinerates the Philistines’ cornfields, olive orchards and vineyards, using 300 foxes whose tails he sets on fire to achieve this task (15:5).
Philistines blaming the woman’s family for this disaster burn her and her relatives to death. They ask the Israelites to turn Samson over to them for punishment for the burning of their property, and the Israelites comply. But Samson using the jawbone of an ass he finds on the roadside kills 1000 of them, escapes, spends a night with a Philistine prostitute in a Gaza brothel, then destroys the gates of the town before leaving (16:1-3).
He then “falls in love” with another Philistine woman, Delilah. This character has of course has long been a popular culture trope for the back-stabbing woman (as for example in Tom Jones’ 1968 hit Delilah.)
Delilah famously betrays Samson to the Philistines by telling them the secret of his superhuman strength: his long hair. A barber shaves him while he’s drunk; the Philistines apprehend, blind, imprison, and humiliate him. But once his hair grows back Samson regains his strength and, when called to appear in the Philistines’ banquet hall in Gaza, stands between the pillars upholding it, pushes them apart and brings down the building. He thereby kills 3000 revelers as well as himself.
It is hard to find any redeeming quality in the story; it’s a celebration of a Yahweh-supported terrorist suicide attack against a people who had inhabited Canaan before the Israelites appeared on the scene. It depicts in the most favorable light the Israelite man’s usage of Philistine women to achieve God’s goal of destroying the Philistines to “rescue” Israel from their presence in the land. If seen through a modern lens, it’s a racist, misogynist celebration of egregious violence against humans, animals (the poor foxes!), and trees (the incinerated olive groves). It’s a horrible myth.
Military analysts in Israel today use the term “Samson Option” to refer to the use of Israel’s nuclear weapons in a future conflict. Perhaps some of them actually believe the story actually happened, and think what Samson did was totally cool. That should scare you.
And then there’s the very mother of destructive biblical myths: that of Abraham, and God’s vow to him that his descendants as the “Chosen People” (Deuteronomy 7:6) would inhabit what came to be called (by English Christians by the 1580s) the “Promised Land.” It is in some communities a deeply beloved myth. But it is a myth, and it has been used to justify intolerable cruelty.
A Comparison: the Japanese Creation Myth
Let me suggest a comparable myth. The Bible myth of the Promised Land is somewhat comparable to the Japanese creation story, according to which the Japanese islands were created by the god Izanagi and his consort Izanami, pacified by the grandson of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, and governed thereafter by his descendents, a line of divine emperors unbroken from the dawn of time—or to quote the text of the Japanese constitution in effect from 1889 to 1945, a line “coeval with heaven and earth.” (Yes, the fundamental legal text of the country asserted that the Japanese imperial line had existed from the very dawn of cosmic time.)
For over six decades the official Japanese ideology of kokutai (national essence), built upon this mythology, stressed the unity between the state, the “pure” Japanese people, and the divine monarch descended from the Sun Goddess ruling over the divine islands and extending his benevolence to what for a time was called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Is that disturbing?
The myths as they appear in the eighth century chronicles seem harmless enough. The primordial divine pair stands on the Floating Bridge of Heaven, stirring the waters below with a jeweled spear. As they raise the spear, the brine dripping off it solidifies into an island. They descend to the island, construct a pillar, walk around it in opposite directions, then meet and greet one another. The female Izanami asks the male Izanagi how his body is formed. He explains that it’s just as she sees, but there is a part formed to excess (his penis). He asks her the same question; she replies that there is a part of her formed insufficiently.
Izanagi then casually suggests that they unite the extra part of him with the insufficient part of her and thus “create the land.” She immediately agrees. Their copulation produces two islands that they consider failures. They return to heaven where a council of deities, consulting with diviners, conclude that things went wrong because the female spoke first.
They pair are commanded to return to the island and try again. This time they produce islands and all manner of things, mostly from their limbs. But Izanami’s genitals burn as she gives birth to the fire-god and she dies, winding up in the Land of Yomi, a type of netherworld. An enraged Izanagi chops off the head of his newborn son, whose blood becomes volcanoes. After visiting Yomi and trying in vain to return his now maggot-ridden wife to the land of the living, Izanagi returns to earth and bathes in a river to purify himself after exposure to great defilement. He produces the Sun Goddess from one of his eyes and her mischievous younger brother Susanoo from his nose.
Susanoo gets expelled from heaven after hurling excrement around the palace and throwing the skinned carcass of a pony through the roof, causing the startled Heavenly Weaving Woman to ram her genitals against her loom, dying on the spot. Susanoo descends to Japan, slays a dragon, and sires 80 sons, one of whom becomes Master of the Land. However, the Sun Goddess decides to dispatch her grandson Ninigi to rule the land, and Susanoo defers to her decision. (He is enshrined at Izumo as a reward for this cooperation.) One of Ninigi’s grandsons, Jinmu, establishes his rule from the southern island of Kyushu to the middle of the main island of Honshu, supposedly in what in our calendar would be 660 BCE.
Charming myths!—like the Hebrew ones. Absurd myths! But perhaps dangerous if taken seriously, as they once were by tens of millions of devout Shinto believers. For example: there was surely no unified state in Japan until the late third century CE at the earliest; the 660 BCE date was invented in the eighth century CE to make it appear that Japan was unified before China. You might call it an early assertion of ethnic superiority. And an assault on historical objectivity.
Of the official list of Japanese emperors, ending with the current Akihito (the 125th), at the least the first fourteen—with some reigns lasting 70, 80 or 100 years—-are thought by serious scholars to be fictional. But there was a time when the state promoted this mythology in the public schools. And there was a time when Japanese historians refrained from a scientific critique of the list, lest they be charged with the serious crime of lèse-majesté (a variant of “heresy”).
Today, few Japanese take the myths, with all their charming scatology and unproblematic sexuality, seriously. (But you notice, whenever anything pertaining to the Japanese imperial family is reported in the western press, this idea that the imperial line dates back over 2500 years is part of the routine, clueless coverage.) If religion constitutes belief in immortal souls, deities, and an afterlife, Japan has become one of the most irreligious countries in the world. The Japanese example shows that it is possible for a sophisticated modern people to disabuse itself of its traditional mythologies!
If the modern promotion of the Japanese myths in the service of nationalism has been largely destructive, this is true with the myth of Abraham too. The former posited a special relationship between the Japanese, their land, their emperor and the gods that justified any number of acts of aggression against neighboring peoples. The latter posits a special relationship between God and the Jews that justifies not only the existence of the present Jewish state but its actions against its neighbors in what it inevitably describes as “self-defense.”
The Myth of Abraham
We speak of the “Abrahamic faiths” as a positive phenomenon, because belief in Abraham (whom Muslims call Ibrahim) shows common ground between Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (Arab Muslims see themselves as descendents of Ishmael, son of Abraham by his wife’s Egyptian slave Hagar, half-brother of Isaac.) I suppose this common reverence for the patriarch can in some instances be a unifying factor. But I think in the main the Abraham myth is dangerously divisive.
Why? Because much of the U.S. public and political class believe it, and it deeply influences their views of Israel. These views in turn assure Israel of unlimited U.S. support, and cause the entire Arab and Muslim worlds that are appropriately enraged at the abuse of the Palestinian people to view the world’s only existing superpower with deep antipathy.
The decisive support for Israel in this country (which is often virtually unconditional) is rooted among religious Jews who believe that God gave Israel to the Jews, and among Christians who believe the same thing. But of these, the Christians are by far more numerous. (Religious Jews only number about 1.7% of the U.S. population. If you add the non-religious Jews the figure rises to 2.2%).
According to a recent Pew Research study 82% of Protestant Christian evangelicals (who believe that the Bible is “the Word of God” to be understood literally) believe that God made this eternal gift to the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. (Evangelicals as of 2007 accounted for about 29% of the U.S. population.)
One must stress that only 40% of U.S. Jews believe this. That includes 47% of self-defining religious Jews and just 16% of non-religious Jews. In the U.S. general public, 44% believe it; among the Christian population, 55%. (But there are major differences between denominations; fewer than 40% of Catholics do.) Christians who literally believe the Bible are unquestionably the driving force behind the routine UN vetoes, the predictable Congressional resolutions, the ironclad votes for annual Israel aid.
Many politicians are swayed by Christian Evangelical Protestant teachings. Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry told the neocon Weekly Standard in 2009: “My faith requires me to support Israel.” He added that the very idea that a U.S. president would ask Israel to return to its 1967 borders “sent a chill” down his spine.
In May 2011 Sarah Palin addressed the Republican Jewish Coalition where she acknowledged the religious basis for her allegiance to the Jewish state: “I am convinced in my heart and in my mind that if the United States fails to stand with Israel, that is the end of the United States . . . [W]e have to show that we are inextricably entwined, that as a nation we have been blessed because of our relationship with Israel, and if we reject Israel, then there is a curse that comes into play. And my husband and I are both Christians, and we believe very strongly the verse from Genesis, we believe very strongly that nations also receive blessings as they bless Israel. It is a strong and beautiful principle.”
(For those of you who need reminding, that verse is Genesis 12:3 and runs: “The Lord said to Abram: ‘Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.’”)
Congressman Doug Lamborn, Democrat from Colorado, also invokes
Genesis 12:3 to explain his deference to Israel. In other words, politicians from both parties believe God will curse the U.S. if it seriously challenges Israel to stop its illegal settlements, demands it withdraw from occupied lands, criticizes its attacks on its neighbors or withholds part of the $ 3 billion plus annual subsidy.
Senator Ted Cruz recently spoke before a conference on the plight of Christians in the Middle East, and was booed when he referred to Israel as a friend of the region’s Christians. “If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews,” he retorted, “I will not stand with you” as he retreated from the stage.
Republican Senator from Oklahoma James Inhofe has unashamedly declared, on the floor of Congress: “I believe very strongly that we ought to support Israel, and that it has a right to the land, because God said so. In Genesis 13:14-17, the Bible says: ‘The Lord said to Abram, ‘Lift up now your eyes, and look from the place where you are northward, southward, eastward and westward: for all the land which you see, to you will I give it, and to your seed forever… Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it to thee.’ That is God talking. The Bible says that Abram removed his tent and came and dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and built there an altar before the Lord. Hebron is in the West Bank. It is at this place where God appeared to Abram and said, ‘I am giving you this land’ — the West Bank. This is not a political battle at all. It is a contest over whether or not the word of God is true.”
Or listen to Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat from New Jersey: “…There is no denying the Jewish people a homeland for which they have thousands of years of history going back to Abraham and Sarah. And, if together we continue to stand with Israel, Israel will have centuries ahead of that reality.” Really? No denying?
Biblical myth-based support for the Israeli Jewish settlers on the West Bank runs deep in U.S. politics. To achieve a breakthrough—to encourage the U.S. public and electorate to adopt a less knee-jerk, pro-Israel position and to reasonably empathize with the reality of Palestinian oppression; and to encourage a firm stance against illegal settlement—one should focus on challenging the Christian Zionist mindset. This is more of a significant political phenomenon than (even) American Jewish Zionism and its coffers.
Challenging the Myth-Centered Mindset
But how to challenge that mindset? It is hard; probably as difficult as breaking someone from a drug habit. Religion is, as Marx put it, “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
The figure of Abraham figures prominently in Negro spirituals like “Rocker my soul in de bosom of Abraham” that dates from at least the mid-nineteenth century. Rock as in rock a baby in a cradle, to put the baby to sleep. But how to wake people up? One option: try to promote historical objectivity. Question the believer’s reasoning. Mention that, according to the Old Testament timeline (as reckoned by the seventeenth-century Irish bishop James Ussher) Abraham lived from around 1996 BC to around 1821 BC.
(While “BCE”—“before the Common Era” has become standard terminology in the historical field, alongside “CE” or “Common Era”—I recommend that you use the traditional “BC” and “AD” if in dialogue with Christian friends who might be put off by the now-standard academic terminology. They may see the latter as a disparagement of the role of Christ in world history.)
Mention that the very oldest inscriptions in the Hebrew language such as the Siloam Inscription date (only) to the 800s BCE. There are some passages in the Old Testament (Tanakh) that may be older, written down originally in a Canaanite script preceding both Phoenician and Proto-Hebrew. (The Song of Deborah in Judges 5 may have been composed in the twelfth century BCE. But the most prestigious scholars of Jewish history at Israel’s Tel Aviv University, such as archeologist Israel Finkelstein, believe that the Old Testament scriptures were for the most part written from the seventh through fifth centuries BCE and that Abraham was a fictional figure.)
So there is a time gap of a thousand years between the time of the biblical Abraham and the first written account of his life. Maybe driving that point sharply home, repeatedly, might jar the consciousness of some.
Of course this doesn’t clinch the argument. The believer might say, well, whenever the scriptures were written they were written by scribes under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Or they can say, these stories were preserved by oral tradition for a thousand years before they could be written down (even though we know that oral traditions are never passed down without alteration and embellishment over centuries). So end of story.
Still, even modest efforts to sow doubt can have a constructive impact ultimately. You don’t kick an opiate addiction overnight. But therapists can use various means to encourage withdrawal.
Summary of the Abraham Narrative
Sometimes it’s good for the believer to hear a familiar Bible narrative summarized matter-of-factly in modern language. That can sometimes underscore the surreal nature of the story and sow slow-germinating seeds of doubt.
So let us review the biblical account of Abraham’s life. Abraham (originally Abram) hails from Ur (Tell el-Muqayyar in modern Iraq), the site of the Tower of Babel. This is where Yahweh (God) had created the variety of human languages to thwart the then still monolingual human race from building a structure that would reach heaven. (This is probably an allusion to the Mesopotamian ziggurats that were first built during the third millennium BCE, when there were surely many human languages.)
Abram’s father Terah forces his son, along with his (barren) wife Sarai, nephew Lot and his entourage, the family flocks and an assortment of dependents to depart for the land of Canaan. (This was more or less, modern Israel/Palestine). They get as far as Haran, in what is today southern Turkey, and remain there for a time. Terah dies there at age 205 (Genesis 11:32).
Abram then receives a message from Yahweh, “Leave your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a country I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Yahweh had spoken to people before—-to Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah—but this is the first time he speaks to Abram. He tells him that he will make of him a great nation, bless those who bless him, and curse those who curse him.
Having purchased slaves and livestock in Haran (Genesis 12:5) Abram proceeds to Canaan, proceeding “stage by stage” to the Negev desert. At the “holy place at Shechem” (today’s Tell Balata on the occupied West Bank) Yahweh speaks to Abram again, saying “I will give this country to your progeny.” Abram builds an altar to Yahweh there, and another in the mountainous district east of Bethel, where he pitches his tent. (This is also located in the central West Bank, where the illegal Jewish settlement Beit El has been established.)
But there is a severe famine in the region, so Abram and Sarai go down to Egypt. (The text doesn’t say this, but the Nile River Delta was in fact the breadbasket of the Mediterranean at this time. This narrative anticipates Genesis chapter 42 in which Joseph’s brothers during a famine also visit Egypt seeking grain.)
Arriving in Egypt Abram tells Sarai that since she’s a “beautiful woman” Egyptians might kill him but leave her alive (presumably as a sex-slave?). So he urges her to tell people she’s his sister “so that they may treat me well because of you and spare my life out of regard for you” (Genesis 12:11-12).
Indeed the Egyptian officials who receive these visitors find (the 65-year-old) Sarai beautiful and sing her praises to the pharaoh, who takes her into his household. The pharaoh treats Abram well “because of her” and awards him flocks, oxen, donkeys, cattle and camels, as well as male and female slaves. But then severe plagues afflict Egypt (anticipating the plagues we find in the myth of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt we read about in the Book of Exodus), and somehow the pharaoh realizes that this is divine punishment on him for housing Abram’s wife as he had. (It’s not clear from Genesis 12: 15-20 what exactly the reader is supposed to think about the relationship between the pharaoh and Sarai.) In any case the Egyptian ruler orders the couple to leave the country, allowing Abram to leave with all his new possessions.
Abram, now rich in livestock, gold and silver acquired during the Egyptian sojourn, returns to the Negev and then back to Bethel, accompanied by his nephew Lot. The herdsmen of the two men fall to quarreling, and so Abram proposes that the two separate to avoid such discord. Lot leaves for the Jordan plain and settles in the town of Sodom (where there are “great and vicious sinners against Yahweh,” Genesis 13:13). (This town was likely located on the southern coast of the Dead Sea.) Yahweh then again speaks to Abram, telling him to look around in all directions because all the land he sees will belong to his descendants forever. He orders him to travel the length and breadth of this land. Abram moves to Hebron to set up his tent, and build yet another altar to Yahweh.
Meanwhile, war breaks out among nine local kings, including the king of Sodom. Sodom is looted and Lot and his people are carried off as captives. Abram amasses a force from his own household—318 men—and tracks down Lot’s people and their captors to a place near the city of Damascus (in Syria). He defeats the enemy and recaptures all the goods and people taken from Sodom. Approaching Sodom with Lot and the reclaimed captives, he’s met in the Valley of Shaveh by the kings of Salem and Sodom. Salem’s king Melchezedik, while not a kinsman of Abram, is described as a “priest of God Most High.” He pronounces a blessing on Abram, and Abram gives him one-tenth of the loot from his victory. On the other hand, when the king of Sodom asks Abram to return the retrieved people to him but tells him he can keep the goods for himself, Abram refuses to take anything lest it be said that the king of Sodom had made him rich (Genesis 14:24).
Later, Yahweh appears to Abram again and promises him a “great reward.” Abram asks—since he remains childless and has no offspring—what great reward Yahweh could give him. God tells him to look up at the night sky and see the multitude of stars; his own descendants will be as numerous. He tells him that his descendants will be enslaved and oppressed for 400 years (a clear reference to the tale of the enslavement in Egypt between the generations of Joseph and Moses in Exodus chapters 1 through 13), and declares that he will give to the descendants of Abram all the territory between the Nile and the Euphrates Rivers (Genesis 15:18).
Then Sarai suggests to Abram that, since they have no children and she is way past childbearing age, he sire a child by Hagar, a slave girl she’d acquired in Egypt. Abram agrees. After Hagar conceives, she takes on airs. Her “mistress [counts] for nothing in her eyes” anymore. An indignant Sarai protests to her husband who tells her to treat the slave as she sees fit. Sarai abuses Hagar so badly that the pregnant woman flees into the desert, where an angel of Yahweh assists her, assuring her that her descendants will be too numerous to be counted, and that her son (who should be named Israel) will be a “wild donkey of a man” at odds with his kin (Genesis 16:12). Hagar returns to Abram’s tent and gives birth. Abram is at this point 86.
(For what it’ s worth, the Qur’an describes Ishmael [Ismail] more positively as “a keeper of his promise, and he was a messenger, a prophet. He enjoined upon his people worship and almsgiving, and was most acceptable in the sight of his Lord.” See Sura XIX: 54. This depiction of course is set down at least 1200 years after Genesis was composed and over two and a half millennia after the events it purports to depict.)
Thirteen years later, God speaks to Abram again, promising to make him the father of “many nations” and conferring the entire land of Canaan to his posterity. He tells him he is changing his name from Abram to Abraham, and Sarai’s name to Sarah. He informs Abraham that he will sire a son by Sarah (now 90). Abraham laughs incredulously.
Yahweh also orders him to circumcise the flesh of his foreskin and to do the same for all the males in his household. “That will be the sign of the covenant between myself and you” (Genesis 17:17:12). Those who refuse to submit to this procedure are to be cut off from his people. Abraham personally circumcises all the men of his household, including slaves “bought from foreigners.” (This practice, of African origin, most commonly applied as an adolescent rite of passage, probably passed into the Levant from Egypt some centuries before the Greek historian Herodotus mentions it in his fifth century work.)
Soon afterwards, according to the Bible story, while sitting outside his tent on the hottest day of the year, Abraham is approached by three men who turn out to be angels. They tell Abraham, as Sarai listens in the tent, that she will have a son by the following year. She, too, laughs. Yahweh later asks Abraham—since all things are possible with Yahweh—“Why did she laugh?” Sarah, participating in the exchange (and “lying because she was afraid”), denies having laughed. But God replies to her: “Oh yes you did” (Genesis 18:14-15). Neither she nor Abraham are punished for their laughter, however.
The three strange men depart for the town of Sodom, and Abraham accompanies them part way. Yahweh tells Abraham that he is “going down” to Sodom and Gomorrah to see whether or not the people’s actions are as evil as reported. (In other words, the three angels are an investigative team.) Fearing that God will wipe out all the residents of Sodom, where Lot lives, Abraham appeals for him to relent if there are 50 righteous men in the town. Yahweh agrees, and even agrees when Abraham proposes a minimal figure of just 10 righteous men.
The three angels arrive in Sodom where Lot insists on hosting them in his home. But the young and old men of the town surround his house and cry out for him to send out the men so that they can have sex with them. (This is of course the origin of the term “sodomize.”)
Lot begs the mob to back off, offering his two virgin daughters to them instead of the men (see Genesis 19:8-9). This proposal fails and the men of Sodom attempt to storm the house to bugger the angels. The angels however avert the assault by blinding the attackers. They urge Lot and his family to flee for their lives, and not to look back as they run. God rains down fire and brimstone on the town, killing everyone. Lot’s wife as she flees forgets the angels’ counsel, looks back and turns into a pillar of salt.
(It is unclear in Genesis why she was punished in this way. The Midrash explains that Sodom was a town especially hostile to outsiders, and that Lot’s Sodomite wife opposed his kindness to the strangers. When Lot sought to offer salt to his guests—along with unleavened bread, staples of Middle Eastern hospitality— she declared that she had none. Therefore, Yahweh turned her into salt.)
When Abraham is 100, and Sarah 90, she gives birth to Isaac. She again asks that Hagar be expelled from the household, along with her son Ishmael. Abraham agrees, and sends them into the desert of Beersheba where they nearly die of thirst. When their water jug runs out, Hagar places Ishmael under a bush for shade. Not wanting to see him die, she walks away anguished by his cries. (Following the chronology, he should be around 15 at this time, although you get the impression he’s still an infant. Some commentators suggest that there are some editorial problems here.)
Yahweh hearing his cries asks Hagar what’s wrong. She explains her plight and he causes a well to appear. (Abraham and King Abimelech later sign a covenant that includes this well as part of Abraham’s property.) God is with Ishmael (Genesis 21:20), who grows up in the desert, becomes an archer, and marries an Egyptian woman whom his mother finds for him.
Yahweh again speaks to Abraham, suddenly demanding that offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice to himself. Abraham without asking any questions sets about the task. He prepares a sacrificial altar on a mountain (believed by many to be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem). As he is about to slit his son’s throat, God commands him to stop. He has passed the test, showing absolute obedience. “All nations,” Yahweh declares, “will bless themselves by your descendants as a reward for your obedience” (Genesis 22:18).
Shortly after this Sarah dies at age 127. Abraham buys a plot of land for her burial, from the sons of Heth the Hittite in Hebron. (Some identity this as the Tomb of the Patriarchs.) Abraham then sends his chief steward to Upper Mesopotamia, where his kin still live, to find a wife for Isaac. The steward goes to a well intending to choose the first young woman willing to serve him and his donkey water. This turns out to be Rebecca, a great-grand-niece of Abraham. She returns with the steward and becomes Isaac’s wife, mother of Esau and Jacob (whom Yahweh eventually renames “Israel”).
Abraham remarries, and has six more sons by his new wife Keturah, and more by concubines. All the latter are sent east. He dies at age 175 and his sons Isaac and Ishmael bury him alongside Sarah in Hebron.
The unusual events here—which you will perhaps agree stretch normal credulity, and require ”faith” to be taken seriously—include the talking with God, the visits from angels, the fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah, the miraculous appearance of a well in the desert of Beersheba, and the turning of Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt.
About the first, the believer can say either “God did talk directly to people back then,” or “The communication wasn’t literally talking, but psychic communication.” Or you might hear, “God talks to people now too, in different ways.” (To the latter you can reply that lots of mentally ill people claim to hear God talking to them. But I’m not sure that’s the best or most useful argument in this context.)
Ridiculing the aspect of Abraham’s chats with God won’t be effective. Nor will the question of the existence of angels. You can point out that angelic beings appear in many world religious texts (I think of ashuras in Buddhism, and similar beings in Zoroastrianism) but your Christian friend will likely say, “See, that just strengthens the case that they exist!”
You can question the story that Yahweh punished the people of two towns for their sins by raining down fire from the sky. (And you might note sadly that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah and the townsmen’s supposed inclination to sodomize visitors has been used historically to justify the vicious executions of gay men.)
But if you say the story’s a myth, that it never happened, you’re likely to hear about the 2008 Fox News story about how “scientists” have concluded that it was probably an asteroid that did it. Certainly the believer can say that the event described in Genesis 19 really happened and that there’s scientific evidence for the means God used to make it happen! As for why a woman might turn into salt during an asteroid attack—well, I suppose someone can devise a theory about that too.
No, it’s not good enough to just point out that these stories seem as fanciful as Greek or Hindu or Norse myths—although that should be said and emphasized. There has to be more.
You can point to the implausible life spans. The Book of Genesis indicates that Abraham was a descendent of Noah’s son Shem, who died at age 600. Here then is his supposed linear ancestry, with the ages of his ancestors when they died:
These are supposed to have lived between around 3000 and 2000. But the archeological record for the Neolithic Middle East suggests that the great majority of people only lived into their 30s. (See Mark N. Cohen and George J. Armelagos, Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture, 1984.) If there has ever been a discovery of human bones thought to belong to someone dying after 200, I think we would have been front-page news. But again, the believer can say, radiocarbon data is all a hoax. Maybe even something designed by Satan to challenge faith.
One could point out that the biblical references to Abraham’s camels (as in Genesis 12:17 and 24:10) don’t square with archeologists’ conclusion that camels didn’t actually appear in the region before around 900 BCE. In the end you want to ask—having perhaps planted a little doubt here or there in your Christian Zionist friend’s mind—should this ancient story really shape your attitudes towards things happening in the Middle East today?
What’s Likeable about Abraham?
Then finally there’s the question of the mythic figure’s character. One could ask the believer: Why does he deserve your reverence? He is hardly a compassionate Jesus-prototype. (In the much later Muslim tradition as reflected in the Qu’ran, however, he is actively compassionate.)
In the Old Testament, Abraham is a slave-owner. He buys people or receives them as gifts from a pharaoh and king. He is married to his half-sister, and whether that is right or wrong (or whether it was either before Yahweh set down the Law to Moses, as found in Leviticus 18:9 and Deuteronomy 27:22, supposedly written by the thirteenth century BCE—although one must repeat the Hebrew written language did not exist until 500 years after that time) he repeatedly presents her in public as his sister rather than his wife. He does so thinking men coveting her might kill him and make her their own. (This is obviously the literature of a society in which women had little agency and were at the mercy of violent men.)
Twice Abraham accedes to Sarah’s stays at royal courts where she is vulnerable to rape, even as he accepts gifts from her hosts. In both instances he profits when the host realizes the marital relationship and is terrified to discover Abraham’s closeness to Yahweh. Twice Abraham banishes the slave-girl Hagar from his tents into the desert, once while pregnant with his own child, and again—with the boy—after Ishmael is born.
What are we, as we read the Bible, supposed to imagine Yahweh found so exemplary about this man from Ur, such that he would, in his infinite wisdom, decide to make his descendents eternal rulers of the land of Canaan?
The fact that he cared enough about his nephew Lot to go to battle to release him from captivity? The fact that he remonstrated with his holy self in arguing against the annihilation of Sodom? Because those are the only two (possible) instances of moral courage that I see in these Bible stories about Abraham.
Or does he—one should ask the true believer—deserve your reverence because of his quiet, automatic acceptance of Yahweh’s command that he sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering? (You might raise at this point the whole concept of burning animals, including people, in different religious traditions, and “offering” them to deities as though they somehow needed them in order to be happy or placated.) Or that he’s willing to personally cut off the foreskins of all the males in his household? Is his moral integrity best reflected is his willingness to obey what he thinks is the voice of God—even so far as to cut his son’s throat and immolate the body?
Maybe the Christian Zionist should be asked that question. And maybe also be asked: Is your willingness to support the modern state of Israel—as it offers countless Palestinians as sacrificial lambs to its Bible-based vision of “Eretz Yisrael” rooted in “faith”—compatible with reason and morality?
(The Palestinians, you should know, also trace their ancestry to Abraham through Isaac, who buried Abraham at Hebron alongside his younger brother Isaac. And it is very likely that many Judeans who remained in Roman Judea after the Diaspora converted to Christianity by the fourth century and/or to Islam after the seventh century Arab conquest. In other words, if bloodline is so important, shouldn’t these descendents of Jews who lived in Judea at the time of Christ have as much right to the land as European Jews with their rich admixture of Gentile blood?)
Or does your faith in the myths of Abraham, the Chosen People and Promised Land trump such considerations as apartheid, Palestinian property seizures, brutal attacks on Gaza and Lebanon that Israeli officials positively boast about as “disproportionate,” laws against Israeli-Arab married couples living in some housing developments, and the culture of racism that results in half of Israel’s Jewish high school students opposing the presence of Arabs in their midst?
Are you really willing to embrace that sort of racism, based on your religious faith in what—you must surely realize—is a view of history that many reasonable, thoughtful, informed, well-educated people seriously dispute?
* * *
Of course I have no real ”faith” in this approach. The situation is grim. Ignorance and irrationality prevail. The “History Channel” to its eternal shame markets Bible tales as “history.” Even National Geographic capitalizes on religious gullibility. It’s easy to do in a country where 60% of the people believe in the charming myths of Noah and the ark, and the parting of the Red Sea.
Still, just as the first step in overcoming a drug addiction is to acknowledge that there is a problem, the first step in overcoming the Abraham myth—and associated delusions stemming from religion, the opium of the masses—is to recognize it for what it is.
It is not a question of religious intolerance. (I am happy to accept my octogenarian Japanese mother-in-law’s naive acceptance of Shinto myth, although should she start to deploy it to—say—justify a Japanese attack on Chinese territory I would have to say, “Don’t you realize this is all nonsense”?) In world history, few things have proven more destructive than religion in the service of aggression. But that’s what the myth of Abraham is all about, in the minds of Israel’s U.S. Christian allies: the justification of Zionist aggression.
Those serious about challenging the default-mode Israelophilia that pervades U.S. policy ought, in my humble view, to hone in on this myth—this fountainhead of racism, colonialism, and messianic End Times craziness—and challenge it at every turn, urging their deluded friends to wake up.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion.