By Israel Drazin
Genesis 18 through 22 relates much about the patriarch Abraham. The following are some thought on these five chapters.
1. The stories in these sections have parallels in other biblical chapters and books. By comparing the stories, readers can make comparisons and see differences and get a deeper insight into each of them. Some examples are:
A. Chapter 18 begins with a story about Abraham being informed by three angels that he will have a son. One angel also tells Samson’s parents that he would be born in Judges 13, and, interestingly, the New Testament, Luke 1:30-31, has one angel foretell the birth of Jesus. Abraham received the message because he was an old man and the birth was unusual. Why were the other births foretold? Is there significance in three verses one angel?
B. In Chapter 18 Abraham pleads with God to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah if ten righteous people are found in them. In chapter 14, Abraham saves the two cities among others because they have only one family, his nephew Lot’s. Why is there a difference?
C. In chapter 18, the cities would be saved if ten righteous people live in it. In Jeremiah 5:1, the prophet predicts that Jerusalem would not be destroyed “If you can find a man, if there is one who does justice and seeks truth.” Why does the latter focus on truth rather than righteousness?
D. In chapter 22, Abraham refrains from sacrificing his son Isaac. He didn’t follow the religious practice of his age where such sacrifices were de rigueur. Yet, his descendants continued to sacrifice their children. Judges 11 tells how the judge Jephthah sacrificed his daughter either by burning her on an altar or closeting her for life in a monastery. Jeremiah 7:31 testifies to the Israelites burning their sons and daughters. Interestingly, the New Testament states that God sacrificed his son. Some scholars argue that the Jewish practice of Pidyon Haben, where parents pay a kohen, a descendant of the ancient priestly caste, to redeem a first-born son, shows the discomfort Jews must have felt at one time about not performing the sacrifice any more. Why did human sacrifices continue?
E. God “tests” both Abraham and Job, but Abraham’s test involved human sacrifices and Job’s why good people suffer. Is there a connection?
F. The Bible doesn’t show God speaking ever again to Abraham after the event of the near sacrifice of Isaac; neither does Isaac speak to him. Why were they silent? Is there a connection?
2. Chapter 18 relates that God visited Abraham, and then three men came to him. Verse 22 states that the three visitors “turned from thence, and went toward Sodom; but Abraham stood still yet before the Lord.” The sages in Midrash Sifrei, Numbers 4, note that obviously the verse means that God remained with Abraham. The Midrash says that this is one of eighteen verses that the ancients rewrote to protect God’s honor; God is not like a servant who waits on a master. They called the eighteen tikkun soferim, scribal changes. This rabbinical statement is saying that the Torah we have today is not like the original Torah.
3. In 22:7, Abraham is called a navi, a prophet. Yet I Samuel 9:9 states that the term navi was not used before the days of the judge Samuel; such people were called ro’eh, “seers,” during the earlier period. Arnold Ehrlich (1848-1919), author of Mikra Ki-pheshuto, argues that the usage of navi proves that this part of Genesis was composed during or after the time of Samuel, centuries after Moses.
4. 21:14 states that Abraham “arose early” to send away his concubine Hagar and their son Ishmael. Ehrlich understands the verse to say that Abraham, distraught over his wife’s insistence that he do so, rose early, while she was still asleep, so that she would not see him cry when he had to let them go.
5. 22:13 says that after deciding not to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham looked and saw ayil achier, which literally means “another ram.” Many argue that since the difference between the Hebrew letter reish and daled is a small extension of a line, this is a scribal error and should read echad, so that the phrase would mean “a ram,” as the Aramaic translation Onkelos renders it. However, while this may be true, I suggest that the reading may be correct. It is a poetic statement. Isaac was supposed to be the metaphorical “ram” on the altar. Now Abraham saw “another ram.”
6. One final point about Abraham. Many rabbis cite 12:5 which relates that when he arrived in Canaan, he brought with him, his wife, his nephew Lot, all items they had gathered, “and the nefesh that they had gotten in Haran.” Relying on the post-biblical translation of nefesh meaning “soul” and supposing that conversions to Judaism existed in the days of Abraham, they say that “Abraham brought converts [the altered souls] that he converted in Haran.” Actually, the biblical word nefesh means “person,” as in Leviticus 2:1, where a nefesh brings a sacrifice, and the first clear example of conversion is much later, during the days of John Hyrcanus, around 150 BCE. Ruth’s statement in 1:16 “your God is my God” is no indication of conversion. In those days, people believed that different gods had authority over different nations, and Ruth was saying she will come to Israel where a different god has dominion; besides, she didn’t undergo a conversion ceremony. Thus nefesh in 12:5 probably refers to servants or slaves.