Abram to Abraham

A Literary Analysis of the Abraham Narrative

by Jonathan Grossman (Author)
©2016 Monographs 574 Pages


Abram to Abraham explores the Abraham saga (11:27-22:24) through a literary lens, following the legendary figure of Abraham as he navigates the arduous odyssey to nationhood. Rather than overlook the textual discrepancies, repetitions and contradictions long noted by diachronic scholars, this study tackles them directly, demonstrating how many problems of the ancient text in fact hold the key to deeper understanding of the narrative and its objectives. Therefore, the book frequently notes the classic division of the text according to primary sources, but offers an alternative, more harmonious reading based on the assumption that the narrative forms a single, intentionally designed unit.
The narrative’s artistic design is especially evident in its arrangement of the two halves of the story around the protagonists’ change of name. The stories of Abram and Sarai in the first half of the cycle (11:27-16:16) are parallel to the stories of Abraham and Sarah in the second half (18:1-22:24). A close reading of this transformation in the biblical narrative illuminates the moral and theological values championed by the figure of Abraham as luminary, soldier, family man, and loyal subject of God.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Introduction
  • “Abraham was but one man” (Eze 33:24)
  • The Historical Era of the Abraham Narrative
  • Sources, Redaction, and Cohesion
  • The Interchangeability of God’s Names in the Narrative
  • The Abraham Cycle as a Cohesive Unit
  • Redaction as Interpretation of the Text
  • The Narrative and Artistic Structure of the Abraham Cycle
  • The Context of the Narrative Cycle
  • Family and Nationality
  • The Abraham Cycle: Between “Nation” and “People”
  • Citizen Will and Divine Will
  • Nationalism and Morality
  • Moral Nationalism and Post-Modern Nationalism
  • Chapter 1: The Line of Terah (11:27–30)
  • Terah’s Journey to Canaan (11:31–32)
  • Plot Development
  • Literary Significance
  • Chapter 2: Abram’s Journey to Canaan (12:1–9)
  • The Omitted Introduction
  • Go Forth
  • Abram’s Journey
  • Abram’s Journey in Canaan and the Construction of Altars
  • Chapter 3: The Descent to Egypt (12:10–20)
  • Chapter 4: The Separation from Lot (Gen 13)
  • The Quarreling Herdsmen
  • Abram’s Proposal
  • Lot’s Choice: Sodom, like the Garden of Eden, like the land of Egypt
  • Chapter 5: War of the Four Kings – Lot’s Liberation (14)
  • Conquest of the Transjordan (1–7)
  • Lot’s Rescue (8–16)
  • Abram Takes Action
  • Abram Meets with the Kings (17–24)
  • Chapter 6: Looking to the Stars and the Covenant between the Pieces (15)
  • The Promise of Offspring (1–6)
  • The Covenant between the Pieces (7–21)
  • Chapter 7: Hagar’s Flight (16)
  • “Her mistress was lowered in her esteem” – “Sarai treated her harshly” (1–6)
  • “Then Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her”
  • The Meeting at the Spring (7–14)
  • Naming Names (13–14)
  • God Sees the Suffering of the Oppressed
  • Conclusion (15–16)
  • Chapter 8: The Covenant of Circumcision (17)
  • a-a1. “Abraham was ninety-nine years old”
  • b-b1. The Beginning and End of the Revelation
  • c-c1. Covenant and Fertility
  • d-d1: Abram Throws Himself on His Face
  • e-e1: The Name Change
  • F – The Covenant Sign (9–14)
  • Circumcision and the Rainbow as Covenant Signs
  • Chapter 9: Angels Eat and Sarah Laughs (18:1–16)
  • Abraham’s Guests (1–5)
  • Preparing the Feast (6–8)
  • Tidings of Isaac’s Birth (9–15)
  • Sarah’s Laughter
  • Chapter 10: The Debate over Sodom’s Destruction (18:16–33)
  • “Judge of all the Earth”
  • I Who Am but Dust and Ashes
  • Chapter 11: Sodom’s Destruction and Lot’s Rescue (19)
  • The Angels Arrive in Sodom (1–3)
  • The Townspeople (4–11)
  • The Verdict and Lot’s Escape (12–17)
  • Saving Zoar (18–22)
  • The Destruction of the Cities (23–26)
  • First Conclusion (27–28)
  • Second Conclusion (19:29)
  • Why was Lot Saved from Sodom?
  • Lot’s Liberation from Sodom and Israel’s Deliverance from Egypt
  • Lot’s Liberation from Sodom and Rahab’s Rescue from Jericho
  • Chapter 12: Lot and his Daughters in the Cave (19:30–38)
  • Evaluation of the Characters
  • The Daughters
  • The Reasoning of the Elder Daughter
  • The Evaluation of Lot
  • Lot’s Daughters as an Epilogue to the Destruction of Sodom
  • Lot’s Daughters in the Context of the Abraham Cycle
  • Chapter 13: Abraham and Sarah in Gerar (20)
  • Abraham’s Journey to Gerar (1)
  • Abimelech Takes Sarah (2)
  • The Dialogue between God and Abimelech (3–7)
  • Early Next Morning (8)
  • Abimelech and Abraham (9–13)
  • Reconciliation (14–18)
  • A Double Reading
  • Chapter 14: The Birth of Isaac and Ishmael’s Expulsion (21:1–21)
  • Reactions to the Birth (6–8)
  • The Expulsion of Ishmael (9–21)
  • Sarah’s Demand (9–10)
  • Ishmael is Sent to his Future (11–14)
  • Saving Ishmael (14–21)
  • How Old is Ishmael?
  • The Structure and Purpose of the Narrative
  • Hagar’s Flight (Gen 16) and Hagar’s Expulsion (21)
  • Chapter 15: The Treaty of Abraham and Abimelech (21:22–34)
  • Chapter 16: The Binding of Isaac (22)
  • Introduction I: Did Abraham Pass the Test?
  • Introduction II: The Binding Narrative in Context
  • Introduction III: The Land of Moriah
  • Exposition (1)
  • God’s Command (1–2)
  • Abraham’s Implementation (3)
  • First Dialogue: Abraham and the Servants (4–5)
  • Second Dialogue: Abraham and Isaac (6–8)
  • Abraham Binds Isaac and Picks up the Knife (9–10)
  • The Angel’s Revelation and the Sacrifice of the Ram (11–14)
  • Misleading Conclusion
  • God’s Promise (15–18)
  • Sacrifice of the Ram and the Structure of the Narrative
  • Conclusion (19)
  • Chapter 17: The Sons of Nahor (22:20–24)
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

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History has seen few revolutionaries like Abraham, who left his home and crossed over to the “other side” of the Euphrates to found a new culture, changing the face of history. One man’s journey, at a specific point in time, was a giant leap for humanity. Religious and cultural history as we know it today was unquestionably shaped by the call to “Go forth,” which marked the first step of a national, ethical saga.

Often, exploration of origin awakens fundamental questions that touch upon the very question of existence. Abraham’s narrative cycle grapples with the very definition of the Israelite nation – or, to be more true to the spirit of the Genesis stories – the very definition of the Israelite family. Other raw, profound issues touch upon the tension between morality and nationality; and the tension between taking an autonomous stand against God and total, unquestioning submission to Divine authority.

This book was written in memory of Dr. Noam Shudofsky (1933–2005), an outstanding Jewish educator and activist. Noam began his career at the Ramaz School in Manhattan as a Bible teacher and served with dedication as Administrator for forty years. He was extraordinarily devoted to his students and faculty. One of the cornerstones of Noam’s Jewish identity was his love of Bible. Whether at the family's Shabbat table or in study sessions with Soviet refuseniks, teaching Bible was his passion. Writing this book in his memory was a special privilege for me. I was also blessed to become acquainted with his wife, Nechi, and his entire family, people whose lives are deeply rooted in love of Torah and love of humanity and colored with humility and devotion.

With great pleasure, I wish to thank everyone who helped bring this book to light; from its first conception to its final design. First and foremost, from the depths of my heart, I wish to thank my dear friend Binny Shalev, who made this journey together with me, a journey that ← 13 | 14 → taught me so much about humility and kindness. I hope we will always continue reenacting the verse, “And the two of them walked together.” We were accompanied on our journey by Itamar Eldar, whose contributions to the ideas expressed in this work were indispensable. As English is not my mother tongue, Atara Snowbell took on the formidable task of translating the manuscript into English. Her love for the words of Genesis translated technical grammatical discussions into precise, sincere explorations of the text’s meaning. My sincere thanks also go to Peter Lang’s dedicated publication team and the editors of the wonderful series this book now belongs to, Michael Fieger and Sigrid Hodel-Hoenes. Especial thanks go to Angelica Scholze and Friederike Meisner, whose generosity and professionalism guided this book’s publication from start to finish.

Last but not least, of course, thanks are due to my wife and children, who accompany me on every journey into the world of reading, writing and study, who so patiently and so fruitfully hear out every thought and dilemma; who color every ordinary day with joy.

.יבואו כולם על הברכה

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“Abraham was but one man” (Eze 33:24)

“Abraham was but one man, yet he got possession of the land,” declare the people of Jerusalem to the Babylonian exiles. But Abraham is no regular man; he is the founder of the Israelite people and the father of what may be tentatively referred to as ethical monotheism. Literary theorists define literary characters according to their actions and personalities, referring to characters as dynamic or static, flat or round; but the complex figure of Abraham eludes such definitions.1 While Abraham’s fierce faith in God is unwavering, his character is wrought with internal contradictions and inconsistencies. He builds altars and invokes the name of God, but also goes to war to save Lot from captivity; he wordlessly accepts God’s commands to follow him to an unknown land and to sacrifice his son, yet he challenges God’s decision to destroy Sodom; he allows his wife Sarah the freedom to do as she will with Hagar (16:7), but is distressed by the prospect of expelling the maidservant and her son (21:11). The many conflicting layers of his personality construct a profound, inscrutable figure, a legendary founder of a legendary nation.2 ← 15 | 16 →

The Historical Era of the Abraham Narrative

Countless theories have attempted to elucidate the connection between the Abraham narratives and the historical period they reflect. Wellhausen surmised that the Abraham cycle reflects the philosophies of later eras; either the settlement period, or the monarchical era.3 Seeligman believed that the patriarchal narratives were originally unrelated stories of individual characters who were fused into one family at a later stage.4 Many scholars, such as Malamat, hypothesized that Abraham’s character was fashioned in relation to the figure of David in order to legitimize and validate David’s monarchy.5 Others believe that “the story of Abraham, as an important segment of the Priestly History of the Hexateuch … was composed with the purpose of providing those who survived the disaster of 586 B.C.E. with a religious basis on which they could rebuild their lives. More specifically, the component of the History dealing with Abraham was intended to provide a paradigm or model for those who aspired to return, or actually did return, to Judah once this became possible after the fall of Babylon in 539 B.C.E.”6

Such theories and their numerous variations are purely speculative, and essentially concern whether the patriarchs should be considered realistic-historical figures, and if so, of which era.7.

Some claim that the purpose of the patriarchal narratives is independent of the historical question. Even the minimalists, who claim that Abraham is not a historical figure, believe that the stories reflect an array of messages, conveyed through narrative content and design. Moreover, the patriarch’s portrayal is clearly not intended as a historical ← 16 | 17 → biography.8 While the biblical narrative depicts certain sequences of Abraham’s life, long periods are completely omitted; highly significant personal events, such as his marriage to Keturah and the birth of six sons, are mentioned only briefly. The fact that certain events are abridged while sequences that promote the narrative’s ideology are related at length (such as the War of the Kings in Gen 14), indicates that the Abraham cycle is more committed to promoting ethical messages than to historical accuracy; to use Buber’s terminology, the patriarchal cycles should be considered “historical,” not “archaeological.”9

Nonetheless, Sarna is correct in stating that the tendency to view the patriarchal narratives as entirely fictional is exaggerated.10 He emphasized that the characters are depicted using concrete, ordinary detail, rather than as mythical figures – and pointed out that Mesopotamia and Canaan are represented with strong historical accuracy.11 Many assert that there is importance in determining the time-frame of the Abraham narratives due to the connections between the literary setting and the real world, which are especially apparent in legal contexts. Speiser wrote: “These chapters are generally a true reflection of prevalent traditions and customs in the relevant era.”12 While new evidence has since disproved some of Speiser’s assertions,13 the school ← 17 | 18 → of biblical archeology’s findings have significantly illuminated some aspects of the patriarchal narratives, which rely on “traditions and customs” that were prevalent in the ancient Near East.

Among the scholars who believe in the narratives’ historicity, many date the patriarchal era to the second millennium BCE (2200–1550).14 This is supported by the correlation of names and places mentioned in the text;15 by the prevalence of wandering from land to land, as Terah and Abraham do; by the patriarchal lifestyle, which correlates ← 18 | 19 → with documents found in Mari (which was destroyed by Hammurabi in the 17th century BCE); and by the use of the title “El” as a private name, among other details. Some of these details have been refuted, proving it is problematic to pinpoint the precise time of the patriarchal era.16 The relationship between the patriarchs and documentation from Nuzi has not been sufficiently established,17 but there is a strong connection between the lifestyle and social norms of the patriarchs and records from Mari and the Hammurabi Code.18

The legal and social norms reflected in these records correlate with many aspects of the Abraham narratives, which “supports the authenticity of the background circumstances described in the bible,”19 and, moreover, also sheds light on ambiguous episodes in the narrative. The enthusiasm that characterized the research of Speiser and his peers in the 20th century is not shared by current biblical scholarship, which has determined that legal correlation between these sources and the Bible is less convincing than previously believed. However, regarding social norms and lifestyle, the similarity continues to be most impressive; as Rowley points out,20 some social details that are incongruent with biblical law are clarified in light of Mesopotamian documents. For example, in contrast with the law in Deut 21:15–17, ← 19 | 20 → the text in Gen 48:5 implies that Jacob has the authority to determine primogeniture, a custom reflected in ancient Near Eastern laws. Similarly, Abraham implies that in the absence of a son, the steward of his household, Damascus Eliezer (15:3), will be his heir, a norm which is reflected in adoption documents from Nuzi;21 the Hammurabi Code includes articles regulating the obligations and privileges of a barren woman who gave her maidservant to her husband, which are relevant to the Abraham/Sarah/Hagar drama (Gen 16). Ishmael’s expulsion from Abraham’s house (Gen 21:10) is also clarified in light of the Hammurabi Code (#170–71), which dictates that a master who fails to recognize the heir born of his maidservant is obligated to set the maid and her son free.

The status of the family patriarch as described in Genesis also correlates with the period in question, particularly the father’s authority over his sons and daughters as reflected in the narrative of Judah and Tamar (Gen 38:24), and Reuben’s statement about his sons (42:37). Lehmann believed that Ephron the Hittite gave Abraham the field in addition to the cave he requested because Hittite law dictates that even partial ownership of a piece of land obligates a person to pay taxes for the entire area, and only by selling the entire piece is the owner exempt from taxation.22 Weinfeld noted that according to Mesopotamian documents, a royal military chief’s presence is required for a covenant ceremony, as reflected in Gen 21:22 and 26:26.23 Similarly, planting trees (Gen 21:33) and building altars (Gen 28:18 and 22) were objectionable actions in later eras, but acceptable in the ancient world. Pons added that Gen 12–36 indicates that Abraham and Jacob were on good terms with nations that were rejected in Deuteronomy.24 Moberly wrote: ← 20 | 21 →

Probably the most obvious argument for the ancient and pre-Yahwistic character of the patriarchal traditions is the number of religious practices to which they refer which are at variance with normative Mosaic Yahwism, especially as this is set out in Deuteronomy. For example, Abraham plants a tree in Beersheba at a place where he worships God (Gen 21.33), and also builds altars in two places where some special tree already exists (Gen 12.6–7; 13.18). Yet the law of Deut. 16.21 states, “You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of YHWH your God which you shall make.” Now of course none of the Genesis passages state that the tree which Abraham planted or beside which he built an altar was an “Asherah” (a sacred tree or pole, consistently associated in the Old Testament with Canaanite religious practice which is prohibited for Israel, e.g., Judg. 6.25–30; 1 Kgs 14.23; 2 Kgs 18.3–4); nonetheless, it is difficult not to feel that even so there is an obvious affinity between Abraham’s practice and that prohibited by Deuteronomy. How then is it that Abraham, the model for Israel’s faith, can carry out religious practices forbidden to Israel, yet with no adverse comment from the narrator? The obvious answer would appear to be that the writer takes seriously Abraham’s context prior to the giving of the Torah to Israel, in which the prohibitions of Deuteronomy simply do not apply because they were not yet given.25

This work is not concerned with issues of historical accuracy, with the exception of those that touch upon social or legal questions which inform our understanding of the plot. The analysis in this book will therefore tentatively rely on documented social and legal customs from the second millennium BCE, which illuminate various details in the Abraham cycle.

Sources, Redaction, and Cohesion

While the Abraham cycle was previously believed to be founded solely on three sources: J, E, and P,26 toward the end the previous century ← 21 | 22 → various scholars contested this position, and argued that the two primary sources J and E were in fact one.27 In any case, there is general consensus that the narrative cycle was composed by more than one author.28 As a result of the general consensus of this approach, few attempts were made to follow the unit as one cohesive cycle. Most scholars perceived stylistic or conceptual inconsistencies as the result of multiple authors.

Scholars who refuted this approach did so from two different perspectives. Some argued that the cycle’s style does point to the hand of a single author:

The narratives in the text before us are designed in an elaborate harmonious structure, which does not seem like the result of the random combination of individual sections. Numeric harmony is apparent, founded on the numbers ten and seven. God’s promises and blessings are repeated seven times; the first (12:2–3) includes seven repetitions of the root “blessing” (ברכה)…All these details point to the creation of a detailed and organized elaborate and harmonious structure, based on materials selected from the treasure of ancient tradition.29

Others claimed that even if the cycle is based on a variety of sources, the intense redactive (or the ‘proactive editing’) process is apparent;30 the reader is presented with a unified and highly organized narrative cycle, which should be analyzed and discussed as such.31 This approach ← 22 | 23 → views source criticism as essentially historical rather than exegetical; the commentator will read and analyze the text in its final form. While Gunkel accepted the premise of the documentary hypothesis, the fact that he was chiefly concerned with the literary form and the Sitz im Leben of the narrative transferred the focus of the debate from the question of sources to the narrative’s social function. This approach values exploration of the examination of literary links between narratives that are attributed to different sources, as long as they are included in the same literary form. Even if the “matriarch in danger” narratives (Gen 12, 20, and 26) stemmed from different sources, they are still part of the same literary type, and their purpose should be examined accordingly. Recent generations of scholars have been attempting a synchronic reading, while taking into account the conclusions of the diachronic analysis.

The relationship between a synchronic and a diachronic reading is also expressed in the context of the theology of the Abraham narrativee. While Yehezkel Kaufmann accepted the documentary hypothesis, he nonetheless believed in a “biblical theology.”32 Israel Knohl contested this position, arguing that the acceptance of the documentary hypothesis negates the implementation of a unified biblical theology; rather, the theology of each source should be examined individually.33 A middle ground was suggested by Brevard Childs, who justified the synchronic reading alongside a diachronic reading in the context of biblical theology. Childs believed the documentary hypothesis is relevant as long as the biblical text is regarded as a mirror of common beliefs and opinions in the ancient world. Nonetheless, the biblical narrative should be analyzed as a unified source, as assumed by the synchronic approach.34 ← 23 | 24 →

These deliberations have accompanied modern biblical scholarship in the past several years. Due to its nature, the Abraham cycle is one of the narratives at the center of the debate. Documentary hypothesis followers found evidence supporting their position in the double and repetitive texts (the wife-sister narratives, Hagar’s separation from the house of Abraham, the tidings of Isaac’s birth, etc.), repetitive descriptions in one literary unit (Abraham’s journey to Canaan, Lot’s rescue from Sodom, etc.), and chronological discrepancies (Ishmael’s age at the time of his expulsion). These inconsistencies were interpreted as an indication of a variety of sources (or traditions) at the foundation of the text. Alternatively, the cycle is presented as an organic unit with a coherent sequence, which enables a synchronic reading.35 This position is supported by several elements:

  1. The literary structure includes the entire narrative cycle: Various scholars have noted that an elaborate literary structure proves that the cycle cannot be viewed as an incidental combination of various sources.36 Cassuto, for example, argued that the ten tests of Abraham are arranged in a chiastic structure: “The perfected form of this structure does not support the view espoused by most modern exegetes, who regard the text as the accidental product of the combination of a number of fragments from various sources that are cited word for word and joined together by a complicated process of repeated redactions.”37 The concentric structure proposed below further reinforces this approach. The links between narratives that were attributed to different sources led Gary Rendsburg to the conclusion that the documentary hypothesis should be ← 24 | 25 → discarded and replaced by the concept of a single author for the Abraham cycle.38
  2. Later stories in the cycle rely on information provided in earlier stories: Various scholars have noted the dialogue between units in the cycle that are generally attributed to different sources. For example, the narrative regarding Sarah in Gerar (20) is based on information delivered in the narrative regarding Sarah in Egypt (12).39
  3. The names Abram-Abraham and Sarai-Sarah are consistent throughout the cycle, in correlation with the sequence of the plot. Abram and Sarai are the only names mentioned before ch. 17, while the remainder of the cycle refers to Abraham and Sarah. The name change is in a narrative attributed to P; nonetheless, the following narrative (18), which is attributed to J, refers to the character by his new name. This is prevalently ascribed to the redaction process.40 However, in light of the inconsistency in the references to Jacob/Israel after his name change, Hamilton viewed the consistency in the Abraham cycle as proof of a single author: “It is most unlikely that a final editor made the necessary ← 25 | 26 → stylistic changes. Any redactor who was not bothered by ‘inconsistencies’ in the Creation or Flood traditions he received, or in the interchange of the names ‘Jacob’ and ‘Israel’, would not feel compelled to smooth out the Abram-Abraham shift.”41 This position can rely on the fact that God’s names are far from consistent in the narrative; those who attribute the links between the narratives to a final redactor would have to explain why the redactor took pains to unify Abraham’s name in correlation with the plot, but failed to do so with God’s name.
  4. Continuity: The Abraham cycle can be read consistently and continuously. Apart from a few exceptions, the narratives report the events of Abraham’s life from his decision to leave his father’s house until the time of his death. The assumption that a redactor organized the units in this way without massive involvement in the writing of the units is not supported by the text; the feeling of continuity that exists in the text is difficult to create after the fact.42 As Adar wrote: “The Abraham cycle…is an exemplary story cycle…The narratives are gathered together to weave a comprehensive biography for Abraham, creating the broadest and most comprehensive cycle in the Bible. We are not faced with two or three life events, but rather with a life cycle; the rhythm of the story becomes slower, and the author takes the time to present all angles of Abraham’s character.”43

Alexander’s definition of the story cycle has become broadly accepted by scholars: “However we explain the process of compilation, it is necessary to affirm that the final form of the narrative did not come about by chance; rather it displays the hallmarks of having been produced by a very competent writer.”44 ← 26 | 27 →

Post-structuralistic readings of the narrative tend to dismiss diachronic analyses of the text, preferring to consider various inconsistencies as literary devices of either intentional or unintentional nature. One post-structuralism approach argued that the weight of textual analysis should be determined by the reader’s reactions rather than the formation of the text. Greenstein, for example, wrote: “In my view it is the proper role of literary study to enable the reader to experience the text thoroughly – not to explain the text, but to expose it.”45 A similar approach values the comparison of double narratives and opposing theologies, either as part of an attempt to balance literary elements that promote the broader purpose of the cycle,46 or as an attempt to portray the biblical narrative as presenting a complex and diverse worldview.47A third approach demonstrates the literary value of the tensions and discrepancies in the text, which emerge either from the structure of the text or from a careful reading that attributes literary significance to ambiguity.48

The analysis in this book will follow a sequential reading of the unified cycle as demonstrated in the suggested structures above. Nonetheless, a sensitive reading cannot ignore the repetitions, discrepancies, and redundancies that exist in the text. The synchronic reading benefits from an awareness of the diachronic reading, and must examine whether the problems that arise from the text in fact contribute to the overall purpose of the text and the story cycle. ← 27 | 28 →

The Interchangeability of God’s Names in the Narrative

One fundamental issue that concerns diachronic readers, and is still considered the essential criterion for attributing texts to assumed sources, is the interchangeability of God’s names. However, the changes contribute greatly to a conscientious literary reading that considers the design of the biblical narrative. This debate was researched extensively by modern scholars; the following is merely an outline of the working hypothesis underlying the analysis offered in this book.49

While the position that views the interchangeability of God’s names as proof of a variety of primary sources was broadly accepted by modern biblical critics, others refuted this claim.50 Vetter believed that the context of the narrative sometimes demands the use of one name over another; in such places the use of a particular name cannot be evidence for the source of the text.51 For example, the name YHWH generally appears only in the context of the Israelite nation and its forefathers; consequently, the name cannot be used in the dialogue between Abraham and Abimelech (ch. 20), and the use of the name Elohim is contextual and does not indicate the identity of an ← 28 | 29 → earlier source.52 Vetter was one of the first modern scholars to attribute literary significance to God’s names.53 It is noteworthy that the interchangeability of God’s names is also found outside the Pentateuch, in the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Jonah, in the frame narrative of Job, and in Daniel 1. The name used to describe God in specific biblical narratives was selected according to the content and atmosphere of the text. This assumption is broadly accepted in reference to unique names such as El Shaddai; there is no reason to deny a similar conclusion regarding the literary contribution of the more common names Elohim and YHWH.54

Scholars generally agree that the interchangeability of characters’ titles in the text has literary significance.55 One narrative will often refer to a character by several titles, which reflect various perspectives in the narrative: Sarai in Gen 12 is sometimes referred to by name, sometimes as the “wife”; Lot in ch. 14 is generally referred to as Lot, but also as Abraham’s “brother” or “kin”; Hagar is referred to by name throughout the text, but also by her title as a “maidservant” or “slave”; the angels who visit Abraham and Lot are referred to both as “people” and “angels”; Ishmael in ch. 21 is the “son” of Abraham, the “son” of the maidservant, the “boy” and the “child”; Abraham’s servant in ch. 24 is referred to as the “servant” and the “man”; and so forth. These changes are viewed as part of the figurative design of the narrative, which contributes to the reading process and develops the purpose of the narrative. While these changes relate to titles and not to names, the Jacob narratives will introduce interchangeability in the names Jacob/Israel.56 ← 29 | 30 → However, the abovementioned names for God might also be viewed as titles instead of names. YHWH is used as a personal name, while Elohim is essentially a title describing divine power.57 Syntactically the title functions as a common noun, even when the name is integrated into the text as a proper noun. This is evident from the inflections of the noun and the use of the definite article (e.g., Gen 17:18; 20:6 and 17; 22:3 and 9).58 Additionally, the name Elohim often functions as an adjective as well as a noun (e.g., Gen 24:3).59 Therefore, the interchangeability of God’s titles is no different from the changing titles of biblical characters, which are sometimes referred to by name and at others by various descriptive titles.

The following analysis of the text relies on the connotations suggested by Cassuto, while focusing on one essential distinction between the names:

If this were the case, naturally an Israelite author…would occasionally, based on the situation, spontaneously be drawn toward using one of the two names YHWH and Elohim…the name YHWH – when presenting the personal image of the divine, and relating to the direct relationship of the divine with humanity and nature; and the name Elohim – when presenting the divine as transcendental to all creatures.60

In his discussion of the unique anthropomorphism reflected in the book of Genesis, Gunkel noted the integration of the name YHWH in the following narratives: ← 30 | 31 →

God walks in Paradise, forms people with his own hands, and closes the doors of the Ark (7:16). Indeed, he breathes something of his own breath into the man and he makes failed attempts with the animals (2:19–20). He smells Noah’s sacrifice (8:21). He appears to Abraham and Lot in the form of a traveler (Gen 18–19), or the angel calls from heaven (22:11). God appears to Abraham once in his true form as a burning torch and a smoking firepot (15:17)!61

Instead of relating the integration of the name to the theological perceptions of J, the reference to YHWH could be viewed in correlation with the narrative materials and atmosphere. A sensitive synchronic reading considers the discrepancies and contradictions presented by the diachronic approach. An avid reader of the text should seek the meaning of the integration of two narratives or the purpose of repetition; a keen reader should pursue the commutative context and the reading experience, rather than the historical aspects of the formation of the text. By doing so, the reader will discover that the name YHWH is integrated into narratives with a personal atmosphere that promotes and rewards ethical behavior, while the name Elohim is used in narratives that promote the fulfillment of historical commitments.

The Abraham Cycle as a Cohesive Unit

Regardless of whether the narrative in question stems from a single source or from multiple sources, it can be assumed that Abraham’s stories were known in Israelite culture before the formation of the narrative cycle:

Based on the biblical text it is clear that traditions about Abraham and his family existed outside of the Genesis narrative. Prevalent oral traditions certainly included the story of Terah and his emigration from Ur of the Chaldeans to Harran, Haran father of Lot, Milcah and Iscah, Damascus Eliezer and his relationship with Abraham, the wells he dug, ← 31 | 32 → etc.62

Therefore, the narratives included in the cycle were selected to serve a specific purpose. The conscious choice to include certain stories and omit others emphasizes the purpose of the selection through the narratives.63 The definition of a collection of stories as a “story cycle” necessitates two basic assumptions: (a) the units that create the cycle are independent literary units; and (b) the units can nonetheless be viewed as part of a continuous plot. While the central component that creates internal cohesion in the Abraham cycle is the protagonist, major themes can be followed throughout the cycle, such as God’s promise of land and offspring, and Sarah’s barrenness. Unique thematic, literary, and ideological characteristics seem to differentiate this cycle from the Jacob or Joseph narratives. However, the common approach in biblical criticism, which divides the narratives based on their primary sources, fails to emphasize the distinction between story cycles, focusing instead on the continuous story of each individual source. The sequence of such a story may begin in the pre-historical narratives in Genesis and culminate in the end of the book and beyond. According to this approach, literary and theological distinctiveness can be detected in a source sequence, but not in a story cycle. This approach was reinforced by Gunkel’s form criticism, since the Abraham cycle includes various traditions with unique characteristics that have thematic and literary links to units in other story cycles. In light of this approach each unit should be analyzed individually.

Rendtorff and Weisman, among others, refuted this approach, and argued that story cycles contain unique characteristics of their own, which are expressed in such elements as the essential challenges presented by the narratives, the geographical locations, the nations involved, and so forth.64 Vogels followed God’s promises of land and offspring throughout the story cycle, and concluded that they are designed in a recurring methodical fashion. He believed the ← 32 | 33 → theme of these promises unifies the story cycle;65 therefore, “instead of sufficing with an emphasis on the difficulties, contradictions, and deviations in the text, we should be impressed by the brilliance of the author or redactor, who delivered the fabulous and artistic story of the Abraham cycle.”66

Rendtorff believed that the classic documentary hypothesis can no longer contribute to the clarification of the Pentateuch’s development.67 As an alternative he suggested a division of the Pentateuch (and the book of Joshua) into six independent units: Early History; Patriarchal History; the Exodus; the Sinai Narratives; Travels through the Wilderness; and the Settlement of Canaan. Rendtorff’s position was founded on the claim that there is no real correlation between the literary units. The patriarch narratives are not reminiscent of the initial narratives in Gen 1–11,68 and the Exodus narrative is independent of the patriarch narratives. While this theory is questionable,69 Rendtorff’s position enables an independent discussion of each literary unit. This approach was reinforced by Blum, who claimed, based on Rendtorff, that the patriarchal narratives possess a “literary independence” that is distinguished from other Pentateuch narratives.70 This position, which examines the patriarch narratives, and specifically the ← 33 | 34 → Abraham narrative, as independent units, is reinforced by the unified literary structure of the Abraham cycle.

Redaction as Interpretation of the Text

The redaction process, which creates a new context for the individual narrative, often adds new meaning to individual narratives.71 Similarly, the joining of two literary units can create an understanding that could not have existed in the individual units.72 Adding keywords and captions affects the reading experience and the purpose of the narrative. Since the Abraham cycle comprises several individual literary units, redaction serves an important role in adding curiosity, tension, and anticipation to the sequence, while emphasizing the purpose of the narrative as a whole. The analysis in this book will emphasize the unique role of redaction in the Abraham cycle, which necessitates an awareness of the structure of the cycle.

The Narrative and Artistic Structure of the Abraham Cycle

Two links are apparent between the stories tracking Abraham’s life: one can be described as a “chain link,” which creates continuity between the smaller units, while the other links the stories through a more complex overall structure. The chain link emphasizes that each individual story relates to the surrounding units. For example, Lot’s settlement in Sodom (Gen 13) is the necessary background for his captivity (14); despite the diverse themes between the War of the Kings (14) and the ← 34 | 35 → Covenant between the Pieces (15), the stories are linked by the fabric of the language, as well as the caption of ch. 15: “Some time later”; the motifs of suffering and liberation, which are so prominent in the Covenant between the Pieces (15), reappear in the following Hagar narrative (16). The angels’ visit to Abraham (Gen 18) opens with a verse that fails to introduce Abraham by name: “The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent,” relying on the previous narrative for this crucial information; the narrative relating the story of Sarah in the house of Abimelech ends with the resolution of the temporary infertility that afflicted the women of Gerar because of Sarah (20), while the following narrative resolves Sarah’s infertility (21), and so forth. These links will be discussed throughout the analysis of the text.

The general literary structure of the cycle includes two perspectives: the plot, and the artistic or creative structure. The narrative element that unites the cycle is God’s promises, which accompany Abraham throughout the narratives, along with Sarah’s infertility, which is a constant hindrance to the fulfillment of those promises. The cycle includes six narratives about God’s promise to Abraham: three promises/blessings (in Ur of the Chaldeans, Shechem, and Bethel), followed by two covenants between God and Abraham, in which he was promised the land and offspring (the Covenant between the Pieces and the Covenant of Circumcision), and God’s oath in the binding of Isaac. The other narratives between these revelations clarify the fulfillment (or lack of fulfillment) of the promises; therefore, the promises link the entire cycle. The question at the heart of the cycle is whether God will fulfill his promises of land and offspring to Abraham, and in what way.73

Despite the obvious nationalistic tone of these themes, the narrative is presented as the elaboration of “the line of Terah” (11:27). As many have noted, the basic internal division of the book of Genesis is based on the genealogical “lines” described therein.74 According to this ← 35 | 36 → division, the Abraham narrative is presented to the reader as part of Terah’s genealogy: Terah had twelve grandsons by Nahor (22:20–24) and two nations by Haran, through Lot (19:30–38). However, Abraham’s line is more complex: his wife Sarai was barren, and in addition to her infertility she was twice taken from Abraham by foreign kings; the alternative heirs – Lot and Ishmael – become irrelevant due to their separation from Abraham; and even Isaac, Abraham’s true heir, was almost sacrificed to God. Despite these trials and tribulations, Abraham, too, contributed to the genealogy of Terah through Isaac, who survived to be his father’s heir and maintain God’s covenant with Abraham.75

Presenting Terah’s line as the general theme of the narrative highlights the underlying tension of the narrative: Abraham is required to disengage from his family (12:1–3), a fact that emphasizes the exclusionary approach that is also expressed in the purchase of the Machpelah cave and finding a wife for Isaac in the appendix of the narrative cycle.76 On the other hand, Abraham marries his son to a member of his family, a practice that will later be adopted by his grandson as well. Arguably, despite Abraham’s disengagement from his family, the approach of the text is not exclusionary. On the contrary, alongside the demand to separate from his family Abraham is told that his blessings will affect all “the families of the land” (12:3); in the Covenant of Circumcision Abraham is informed that God will make him “the father of a multitude of nations” (17:5).77 The fact that the context of ← 36 | 37 → the stories of Abraham is the line of Terah proves that the approach of the text is integrative, despite the commandments that distinguish Abraham and temporarily separate him from his family.

The literary form of a narrative often hints to the nature of its content. Various scholars have attempted to arrange the Abraham cycle into a chiastic or concentric structure, differing in their treatment of specific elements of the narrative. A common approach views the design of the cycle as two halves surrounding the narrative about the flight of Hagar and the birth of Ishmael (ch. 16). The structure below was suggested by Crotty:78

A. Terah’s genealogy (11:27–32)

B. Abram and his barren wife Sarai depart from Harran: “Go forth” (12:1–9)

C. Sarai in danger in Egypt (12:10–13:4)

D. Lot’s separation from Abram (13:5–18) and Lot’s rescue from captivity (14)

E. A covenant of sacrifice (15)

F. Ishmael’s birth and expulsion of Hagar (16)


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Abraham Genesis Synchronic approach Bible as literature Concentric structure
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 574 pp.

Biographical notes

Jonathan Grossman (Author)

Jonathan Grossman is a faculty member of the Department of Bible at Bar Ilan University. His main field of interest is the Bible as literature. Among his previous books are Esther: The Outer Narrative and the Hidden Reading (2011); Ruth: Bridges and Boundaries (Peter Lang, 2015); Text and Subtext: On Exploring Biblical Narrative Design (2015).


Title: Abram to Abraham
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574 pages