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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 14: The Birth of Isaac and Ishmael’s Expulsion (21:1–21)

Extract

Gen 17 and 18 bring tidings of the birth of a son and heir to Sarah and Abraham within the year; the promised son is finally born in ch. 21. One might assume that the narratives integrated between promise and implementation – the destruction of Sodom (19) and Abraham and Sarah in Gerar (20) – occurred over the course of that year. Since ch. 21 begins with Sarah’s conception, presumably she conceived shortly after leaving Gerar.1 The chronological proximity is also expressed on the literary plane, through joint narrative materials. The Gerar nar- rative ends with God opening the wombs of the women of Abime- lech’s household (20:17–18), while the following narrative describes God fulfilling His promise to Abraham and Sarah and opening Sarah’s womb (21:1). Perhaps the previously discussed integration of the name YHWH in the last verse of the Gerar narrative also serves the purpose of linking the two narratives, since Sarah’s conception is in the name of YHWH. Additionally, the phrase “for the Lord had closed fast [רַצָע רֹצָע] every womb” (20:18) is reminiscent of Sarah’s infertility, which she had previously described in similar terms: “The Lord has kept me [י ִנַרָצֲע] from bearing” (16:2).2 Moreover, the placement of the next episode in the Abraham–Abimelech relationship (the quarrel and cov- enant over the well in 21:22–34) after the birth of Isaac and expulsion of Ishmael reinforces the link between the episodes, and might be the purpose of the order of the narratives. In an...

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