By Israel Drazin
Scholar Arnold Ehrlich (1848-1919), author of Mikra Ki-pheshuto, “The Bible Literally,” offered some interesting thoughts about the patriarch Abraham.
1. The Torah doesn’t try to hide the faults of Israelite ancestors. In fact, there is virtually no biblical figure who is described without faults and many biblical sections portray the patriarchal families as dysfunctional. These ancestors serve as examples for their descendant who also have faults but, like them, can overcome their mistakes and make significant contributions to civilization. Abraham in Exodus 12 outrageously told his wife Sarah to tell the Egyptians that she is his sister, for Abraham knew that the Egyptians would covet his wife and take her by force. If they thought he was her husband they would kill him first. Thus, Abraham was willing to sacrifice his wife’s chastity to save his own life.
(It is interesting, I would add, that the mystic Nachmanides [1194-1270] also criticized Abraham. Nachmanides believed that God is involved in everything that occurs on earth; no leaf falls unless God proclaims “fall, keep falling, fall some more, now lay on the ground.” Nachmanides berated Abraham for lacking his view of faith: Abraham should have had faith that God would save him and his wife. It is clear from Abraham’s act that, contrary to Nachmanides, the Bible does say God controls everything at all times.
Nachmanides also curiously says that Abraham and Sarah both sinned when they sent away Abraham’s concubine Hagar and Abraham’s son by her, Ishmael. He maintains that to punish them, God caused Ishmael’s descendants to inflict pain on Jews. This is a variation of the Christian notion or “original sin” where descendants are punished for their ancestors’ sin. While many Jews such as Nachmanides accepted this notion, it is not rational and is contrary to the Jewish spirit.)
2. When Abraham arrived in Canaan, he “built an altar to the Lord there” (Genesis 12:8), but there is no mention that he offered a sacrifice on the altar. Jacob did the same in 35:7. The ancients built altars looking toward the future; if God made them successful they would return to the altar and offer God a thanksgiving sacrifice on it. It was as if they were saying, I am prepared to thank you when you help me.
3. God tells Abraham in Genesis 13:13 to “walk through the land (of Canaan) in its length and its breadth, for I will give it to you.” Why did God instruct Abraham to walk on the land? Ehrlich explains that we see from Homer’s Iliad that one ancient way to acquire land was to walk over the area that one intends to acquire. This helps us understand that God was telling Abraham to take ownership of the land. Ehrlich and many other scholars stress that we can understand Scripture’s practices and laws better by being familiar with the customs of other ancient people.
4. Chapters 14 narrates a tale of four kingdoms subjugating five kingdoms, including Sodom and Gomorrah, for a dozen years, and required them to pay tribute, but in the thirteenth year the five revolted, to free themselves. The four kingdoms fought back, defeated the five, looted the lands, and took Abraham’s nephew Lot who was living in Sodom and his property captive. Abraham rushed to battle the four kingdoms, beat them, and rescued Lot. Why does the Bible tell this tale and why does Abraham save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah which chapter 18 describes as being so evil that God wanted to destroy them? Ehrlich says chapter 14 is a parable showing the consistency in Abraham’s character and teaching his view that a country should be saved if it has pious inhabitants. In chapter 14, Abraham saves the cities for Lot’s sake. In 18, he bargains with God and God agrees not to destroy the cities if ten righteous people live in it. But the cities didn’t have ten righteous people.
5. Why did the ancients, Israelites and non-Israelites, institute the Levirate practice: if a man dies without children his relatives must take the deceased’s wife and marry her, have a child, and call the child the deceased’s child? This was because the ancients felt humiliated if they died without leaving a child. The Levirate practice removed this humiliation. Thus Abraham calls himself ariri in 15:2, which Ehrlich translates as humiliated. (The practice is found with some variations in Genesis 38, the biblical book of Ruth, and the Talmud. The rabbis discontinued it and told relatives to undergo instead the ceremony where he refuses to comply with the biblical mandate, known as chalitzah. This is not the only instance where the rabbis discontinued biblical practices.)
6. Why did the Masorites who, among other things, helped fix the Bible text during the first millennium CE, place dots over certain letters in the Bible? An example is the word u’vei’ne’kha in 16:5 where the second letter yud in the word has a dot over it. The ancient rabbis argued that dots were placed to prompt readers to search these verses for homiletical lessons. No, says Ehrlich and most scholars, the Masorites were informing us that there is a spelling error. The second yud does not appear in this word whenever it is used elsewhere in Scripture.