Abraham’s Chiastic Journey
As someone who has spent many years on chiastic structures in the Torah, I was delighted to read Professor Gary Rendsburg’s “Abraham’s Spiritual Journey: A Chiasm that Climaxes with the Akedah” (TheTorah 2020), which lays out the clear and convincing parallels in the Abraham cycle in Genesis:
A – Genealogy of Terah (11:27‒32)
B – Command to “go forth”; Start of Abram’s Spiritual Odyssey (12:1‒9)
C – Sarai in foreign palace; peace and success follow; Abram and Lot part (12:1‒13:18)
D – Defeat of Sodom, Abram rescues Lot and saves Sodom (14:1‒24)
E – Covenant between the parts with Abram; annunciation of Ishmael (15:1‒16:16)
Focal Point: 17:1‒5: Abram > Abraham | Elohim introduced | covenant
Eʹ – Covenant of circumcision with Abraham; annunciation of Isaac (17:1‒18:15)
Dʹ – Abraham tries to save Sodom, Lot rescued, Sodom destroyed (18:16‒19:38)
Cʹ – Sarah in foreign palace; Abraham and Ishmael part; peace and success follow (20:1‒21:34)
Bʹ – Command to “go forth”; climax of Abraham’s Spiritual Odyssey (22:1‒19)
Aʹ – Genealogy of Nahor (22:20‒24)
Building on Rendsburg, I would like to suggest that, for the most part, the chiastic structure here is meant to emphasize contrasts.
Covenant between the Parts (E) vs. Covenant of Circumcision (Eʹ)
The covenant between the parts (Gen 15) is a national covenant, between God and Israel, and refers to God’s redemption of Israel from slavery, that will take place centuries later. This is why it takes place in a dream.
The covenant of circumcision (Gen 17), however, is a personal covenant, between God and Abraham’s family. Abraham will enter into it that very day, which is why that it takes place while Abraham is awake.
Sodom Saved (D) vs. Sodom Destroyed (Dʹ)
In the story of the four kings (Gen 14), Lot and his fellow citizens of Sodom are taken captive and Abraham rescues them, returning all of the captives and stolen property to the kings of the plains, including Sodom and Gomorrah. In the story of Abraham arguing with God (Gen 18), while Lot and his family are saved by messengers of God, Sodom, Gomorrah and the cities of the plains are utterly destroyed. Abraham cannot save them this time, and is forced to witness the smoke and ash that rise from the overturned cities.
The contrast between Abraham chasing down an army of four kings with his own soldiers in the first story, and his failed pleading for the cities in the second, in which he states וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר “I am but dust and ashes” (Gen 18:27), is especially stark.
Sarai Taken by Pharaoh (C) vs. Sarah Taken by Abimelech (Cʹ)
Both stories involve Abraham pretending that Sarah is his sister. This middle parallel, perhaps the most famous, has several contrasts. In the Egypt story (Gen 12:10–20), God never speaks to Pharaoh, but simply strikes him with a plague, after which Pharaoh rebukes Abram, who accepts the rebuke silently. The story ends with Abram and his family escorted out of Egypt as personae non gratae.
In the Gerar story (Gen 20), God addresses King Abimelech directly in a prophetic dream. After rebuking Abraham, Abimelech asks why he lied, and Abraham explains. Abraham then prays for the returned health of Abimelech and his household, and Abraham and his family are permitted to remain in Abimelech’s territory.
Even the theme of wealth plays out in opposite ways in these two parallel stories. In the Egypt story, Abram is granted wealth from Pharaoh early in the story, when the latter was under the impression that Abram was Sarai’s brother (12:16). In contrast, Abimelech gives silver to Abraham at the end of the story, as part of his making amends for what he did to Sarah (20:16).
God Sends Abram to Canaan (B) and the to Mount Moriah (Bʹ)
This parallel was the theme of Rendsburg’s piece, and the linguistic and thematic connection between God sending Abram to Canaan to live (Gen 12:1–9), and God sending Abraham to Moriah to offer his son as a sacrifice (Gen 22:1–19), are especially strong. As
Rendsburg noted, both of these accounts begin with the words לֶךְ לְךָ “go forth,” using the grammatical form known as the ethical dative. This is definitive evidence of a purposeful parallel given that, as my father of blessed memory, Dr. Yehiel Bin-Nun, pointed out to me, this phrase exists nowhere else in the entire Bible.
The Go-to-Canaan story narrates God’s first revelation to Abraham, while the Go-to-Moriah story narrates the last divine revelations to Abraham. In both, we read the same promises and blessings, but herein lies the contrast.
In the first lekh lekha, Abram is just beginning his journey, and the tone is optimistic. In the second lekh lekha, however, Abraham has been through many trials and has received many promises, all of which are put in jeopardy by God’s command to sacrifice Isaac.
When Abraham looks upon Mount Moriah, he sees the death of his son and his hopes. It is only when Abraham sees the ram, presumably brought there by God as a substitute for Isaac, that Abraham is able to sacrifice the ram that was seen and chosen in the place that was seen and chosen. This point is made by the literary parallel between these two moments in the story:
בראשית כב:ד ...וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת הַמָּקוֹם מֵרָחֹק.
Gen 22:4 …Abraham lifted his eyes and saw the place from afar.
בראשית כב:יג וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה אַיִל אַחַר נֶאֱחַז בַּסְּבַךְ בְּקַרְנָיו...
Gen 22:13 Abraham lifted his eyes and saw—here was a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns.
Rendsburg’s insightful note about wordplay here works with the contrast theme. The word vayaʿateq (וַיַעְתֵק) in 12:8 is about leaving a spot or releasing someone from it, while vayaʿaqod (וַיַעֲקֹד) in 22:9 is about binding something to a spot.
The point may be that upon entering Canaan in the first lekh-lekha story, Abram builds altars in multiple places since the story is about his wandering through the entire Promised Land, and the specific place is not significant. In the second lekh-lekha story, the place is very significant, and the altar he builds there will be used in the future as God’s holy altar (v. 12), and the future spot of the Jerusalem Temple (2 Chron 3:1).
Terah Genealogy (A) vs. Nahor Genealogy (Aʹ)
The one parallel that does not seem to be designed as a contrast is the framing of the Abraham story between the Terah genealogy (Gen 11:27–32) and the Nahor genealogy (Gen 22:20–24), both introduced with the term toledot, variously translated as “genealogy,” “generations,” or even “story of.”
Genesis is heavy on toledot, containing ten out of twelve in the entire Bible. And yet, Genesis never has אלה תולדות אברהם, a genealogy of the descendants of Abraham. The entire story of Abraham and his sons, Lot and his daughters, are subsumed under the heading of the Terah toledot!
The closest thing we find to a toledot of Abraham is tucked into the toledot of Isaac, and written with a chiasm that reverses their order: Isaac, Abraham, Abraham, Isaac:
בראשית כה:יט וְאֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת יִצְחָק בֶּן אַבְרָהָם אַבְרָהָם הוֹלִיד אֶת יִצְחָק.
Gen 25:19 These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham. Abraham fathered Isaac.
In my view, the Torah purposefully avoids opening the Abraham stories with אלה תולדות אברהם “these are the toledot of Abraham,” because it wishes to express the universality of Abraham, who cannot be contained in a simple genealogy. Anyone who wishes to worship Abraham’s God, and to join the covenantal people that he fathered, can become a descendent of the אַב הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם “father of many nations” (Gen 17:5).
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Dr. Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun is one of the founders of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He received his rabbinic training at Yeshiva Merkaz HaRav and his Ph.D. from Hebrew University. In 1986, he established Michlelet Yaakov Herzog for training Jewish Studies teachers, especially in Bible instruction. Between 2000-2006 he served as the Rosh Ha-Yeshiva of Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati in Ein Tzurim.
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