Right now in the Netherlands a man stands trial for the murder of former Health Secretary, Els Borst. The culprit has confessed, stating in his defence that God commanded him to kill dr. Borst as she was responsible for the new euthanasia laws. The immediate reaction of the Dutch public is that he is insane; also the court does not take his claim seriously. Now, such a claim in a murder case is rather new for the Netherlands, but in the USA this kind of delusion may sound familiar, like in attacks on abortion clinics. Claims on God’s command can be used for all purposes, also the most nefarious. The interpretation of a story’s message depends on who is telling it and what is the hidden agenda of the story teller.
In my earlier blog we were wondering about Abraham’s intended sacrifice of his son, our basic conundrum, and now let us view Abraham not as a historical person but as a legendary figure about whom tales are told. Who tells the tale in Genesis 22 and to what end? According to the Documentary Hypotheses, Genesis stems from four sources: the Elohist (E), the Jahwist (J), the Deuteronomist (D), and the youngest one (P), the Priestly source, which is postexilic. The general notion of multiple authorship of the Torah is almost standard these days, and does throw new light upon our Abraham problem. Abraham’s life is a mix of J and E texts, with occasional P chapters or insertions. D is absent in this episode. For instance, both J and E have a parallel story of Sara being defined as Abraham’s sister at a foreign court, one in Egypt, and the other with Abimelech, so this solves the puzzle why Abraham seemingly pulls off the strange gimmick twice. But our main issue is the notion of the test.
The individual sources come up with parallel tests for Abraham. The sacrifice story in Gen. 22 is a typical E tale, a source that originated probably from the Northern Kingdom, after the split of Salomon’s realm. One of the subtexts of the E part of Genesis is, as Nancy Jay has cogently analysed (Throughout your Generations forever, 1992), the notion of patrilineal descent. Theirs was a kingdom without a proper dynasty, that one was in Jerusalem. So E’s focus is on descent through the male line, and if anything confirms paternity it is sacrifice. There is indeed a surprising correlation between patrilineal descent and sacrifice (Nancy Jay’s pivotal discovery), and throughout Genesis and Exodus it is E who stresses sacrifice. Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac fits well into that angle, in fact culminates it. Isaac is the son of Abraham and his half-sister Sara. E stresses this type of marriage, in fact a union which is much too close, even for a society used to marriage between children of brothers (FBD for anthropologists), a near-incest. Isaac traces his lineage through both his mother and his father, and that ambivalence has to be sorted out. And solved it is by the most flamboyant act possible: Abraham almost took the life of his son, and then through his personal relationship with Elohim gave him back his life. From the E point of view, the near-sacrifice is the ultimate sign of fatherhood, a spiritual rebirth without any woman involved. Isaac now was completely Abraham’s son, so it is fitting that in the story Sarah dies soon afterwards, far away in a different region (Gen. 22: 20-24 is an insertion by P). Through the intended sacrifice Abraham became the ultimate ancestor of a patrilineal descent system, a father of nations, a super father.
The J source is not concerned with paternity, but with frugality: Ishmael will generate a ‘multitude’ (16:10) (for E a nation is more than enough (21:13), another double story). The Davidic dynasty as such was secure in Jerusalem but it had succeeded Saul’s throne – from another tribe – and not by right of descent. The main focus for J is on numbers, on twelve sons like Jacob, a pattern repeated in Ishmael, Esau and Nahor, four times 12, symbolic multitudes. J’s tale is about nation building and his test of Abraham is not sacrificial at all, but the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here Abraham is tested through his loyalty to his brother’s son Lot, on his concern for whole cities, indeed located in the Southern Kingdom. He had already saved Lot and those very cities from their enemies (Gen 14); in Gen. 18 Abraham duly haggles with YHWH, as is his duty and prerogative, a barter that forms the core of his test in J: he has to stand up for his people and so he does. Here Abraham does not fail, but the cities fail against even his lowest standards. Abraham does save his nephew, but not Lot’s nameless wife, as she has no relationship with the main genealogy. Lot has a similar but minor test in which he saves a small town, Soar (Gen. 19: 22).
What follows is an awkward story that is always left out in Sunday School. Lot’s daughters reasoned that since their fiancés had remained (and died) in Sodom, no other men were available in the region, so they made their father drunk, and slept with him to ‘guard his seed’. (19: 30-38). No man available means that there are no men around with the proper genealogical connections. Through this tale Lot becomes the apical ancestor of the Moabites and Ammonites, and again incest serves as a means for abundant procreation. But then, an origin tale of people which starts with incest is extremely common, almost standard, in comparative mythology.
It is in J that the covenant with Abraham has a clear and ambitious territorial side, the promised area stretching all over the present day Iraq and Syria (Gen. 15: 15). This forms, by the way, another problematic legacy in the hands of present-day fundamentalist Jews, who try to lay claim to territories way beyond their span of control. Abraham is food for fundamentalists.
P’s account is not about sacrifice, but about covenant. This source comes much later, during the Babylonian Exile, and the writers of P are concerned with the priestly line, tying any sacrificial story to that line, refusing to acknowledge earlier sacrifices by non-priests. Genesis 17 is pure P, with circumcision as the main sign of the covenant.
So we have three stories loosely woven into one legendary tale, each with its own message. For E Abraham is the ultimate male progenitor, the one who engendered his own son and appropriated female fertility. Abraham’s overdose of obedience is not the crucial message, but forms a means to establish his super-paternity, as the legendary father of nations. Abraham the nation builder is J’s concern, and his story is about rightful territorial inheritance; for him altars are claims on the ground, not sacrificial spots. P aims at establishing a personal covenant, not a collective or territorial one, but a corporal sign for males, and for males only. Wherever sacrifices are concerned, those should be expiatory ones, not the communal meals mentioned by E. For P patrilineal descent is only interesting in the priestly line, much later.
Thus three different stories are projected on the blank screen of Abraham, tales that entertain, puzzle and inspire but also contradict each other, but before else they are stories with a subtext, both theological and socio-political. However, that is not the end of it: we as LDS do have a fourth source, that I propose to call the S source, the one of Joseph Smith. We saw in the first blog that Joseph in the Book of Abraham gave Abraham an earlier history with human sacrifice, thus exerbacating the basic conundrum of the Isaac pseudo-sacrifice. But the text in the Pearl of Great Price gives Abraham another angle as well. Chapter 2 parallels the biblical wife-sister tale as told by J (Gen 12), but adds a completely different and crucial element: Abraham as a scientist-by-revelation, as an astronomer. It is in Egypt that Abraham gains knowledge about the material side of the heavens, and of the theological implications of that knowledge. He does so through his possession of the Urim and Tummim, meaning through his priestly functions, which harken back to Ur, the place where he was almost sacrificed. Where Gen. 14 has Abraham pay homage to Melchizedek, here the hero of the story comes into full force as king-priest. Facsimile 3 carries this new element to its completion, as Joseph interpreted this plate as Abraham teaching Pharaoh and his court. Sitting on the throne, decked out with symbols of power (Egypt’s double crown is read as priesthood and heavenly presidency) Abraham explains to them the principles of astronomy.
Of course, I know that neither the text nor the interpretation of the plates holds much Egyptological water, and that the Book of Abraham no longer can be considered as a valid translation of an old papyrus text, but that is not the issue. What we have here is another projection of a fourth major story onto the patriarchal screen: Abraham as priest and prophet, as the source of science in addition to global fatherhood. Thus, our modern values are projected onto Abraham, science, revelation, justice and wisdom; those elements are new, different from the for us rather non-moral tales of E, J and P, so in this way through the S source we pre-empt the old tales to our own benefit and theological purposes.
Abraham the legend, indeed. In anthropology we call a person like Abraham a culture hero, the legendary ancestor from whom all major cultural institutions stem, and with the S source Abraham comes into full force as a culture hero. What actually ‘happened in history’ is definitely not what the contradictory texts are regaling us on, as this is the stuff of legends, mythical tales about culture heroes. We do have to guard, however, against fundamentalist readings that misappropriate these tales, seeing them as actual history that supports their violent causes. Factual history as such is irretrievable and of secondary importance only, but the protagonists of old invite to be written into, to be used as screen for our theological and social projections, with the S source as a splendid example. These tales in the end concern ourselves, our own mores and morals, serving as litmus tests for the way we construct our relationship with the divine.