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Abram to Abraham

A Literary Analysis of the Abraham Narrative


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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“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...

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