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Abram to Abraham

A Literary Analysis of the Abraham Narrative

Series:

Jonathan Grossman

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.

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Chapter 3: The Descent to Egypt (12:10–20)

Extract

The first episode that interrupts the sequence of Abram’s travels through Canaan reveals Abram’s distress when faced by a famine in Canaan. This occurrence is surprising in light of God’s recent promises to Abram: the Promised Land turns out to be insufficient for Abram’s current household, let alone a promised multitude of offspring. The reader was previously made aware that Sarai was infertile; now the land turns out to be infertile as well. Thus, the fulfillment of both aspects of God’s promise to Abram – land and offspring – seems unlikely. Abram and Sarai’s descent to Egypt has been criticized by com- mentators and scholars alike. Many pointed to textual indications that Abram mishandled the crisis. Nahmanides stands out in his harsh review of Abram’s actions:1 Now Abram went down to Egypt on account of the famine to dwell there in order to keep himself alive in the days of the drought, but the Egyptians op- pressed him for no reason and took his wife. The Holy One, blessed be He, avenged their cause with great plagues, and brought him forth from there with cattle, silver, and gold. Pharaoh even commanded his men to escort them away. He thereby alluded to Abraham that his children would go down to Egypt on account of the famine to dwell there in the land, and the Egyptians would mistreat them and take the women from them, just as Pharaoh said, “If it is a girl, let her live.” But the Holy One, blessed be...

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