The Nations of Abraham: Explaining Israel’s Position in the Persian Empire
The Abraham narrative is threaded with divine promises of nationhood and territory. While a quick reading may give the impression that Abraham’s God is simply repeating the same promises, a close comparison shows that the content varies considerably.
A Great Nation in the Land
While living in Haran, YHWH speaks to Abram for the first time, telling him to leave his homeland and go to an unspecified land (12:1), where he will become a great nation:
בראשית יב:ב וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה. יב:ג וַאֲבָרֲכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה.
Gen 12:2 “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. 12:3 I will bless those who bless you and curse the one who curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”
YHWH clarifies only after Abram arrives in Shechem that “this” is the land: לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת “I will assign this land to your offspring” (Gen 12:7). The promise is repeated in the next chapter, where this land is visible in every direction from where Abram is standing:
בראשית יג:יד ...שָׂא נָא עֵינֶיךָ וּרְאֵה מִן הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שָׁם צָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה וָקֵדְמָה וָיָמָּה. יג:טו כִּי אֶת כָּל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה רֹאֶה לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֲךָ עַד עוֹלָם.
Gen 13:14 …“Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, 13:15 for I give all the land that you see to you and your offspring forever.
Specifying the Borders: From Egypt to the Euphrates (Gen 15)
In Genesis 15, YHWH specifies for the first time the geographic extent of the land being granted to Abram’s descendants:
בראשית טו:יח בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא כָּרַת יְ־הוָה אֶת אַבְרָם בְּרִית לֵאמֹר לְזַרְעֲךָ נָתַתִּי אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת מִנְּהַר מִצְרַיִם עַד הַנָּהָר הַגָּדֹל נְהַר פְּרָת.
Gen 15:18 On that day, YHWH made a covenant with Abram: “To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”
The promise here is imperial in scope, and it provokes a question about how Abraham’s nation will relate to all the other peoples within this expansive territory.
Just Canaan, but Descendants Will be a Multitude of Nations (Gen 17)
In Genesis 17, God self-identifies as El Shaddai, rather than as YHWH, and starts again with the promise of offspring:
בראשית יז:ב וְאֶתְּנָה בְרִיתִי בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶךָ וְאַרְבֶּה אוֹתְךָ בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד.... יז:ד אֲנִי הִנֵּה בְרִיתִי אִתָּךְ וְהָיִיתָ לְאַב הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם... יז:ו וְהִפְרֵתִי אֹתְךָ בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד וּנְתַתִּיךָ לְגוֹיִם וּמְלָכִים מִמְּךָ יֵצֵאוּ.
Gen 17:2 “I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous.”… 17:4 “As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations…. 17:6 I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you.”
Unlike Genesis 12, Abraham’s progeny is not described here as a great nation (ch. 12), but as a multitude of nations. The names of Abram (v. 6) and Sarai (v. 16) are changed in order to reflect this new promise (17:6, 16).
At the same time, the land grant at this point is far more modest:
בראשית יז:ח וְנָתַתִּי לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ אֵת אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ אֵת כָּל אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן לַאֲחֻזַּת עוֹלָם וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים.
Gen 17:8 “I assign the land in which you sojourn to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God.”
How are we to explain all these changes in the divine promises, which also appear with small variations later in Genesis?
Traditional commentators struggle with the idea that Abraham will be the father, and Sarah the mother, of many nations. Rashi (R. Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040–1105), for instance, suggests that this refers to how Abraham’s grandsons Jacob and Esau each become their own nation, Israel and Edom. The same is true of Ishmael, who receives his own blessing of nationhood in 17:20, and the six sons of Keturah (Gen 25:1–4) who each become their own nations. Rashi even says, somewhat elliptically, that Abraham will become the father of “all the world” (כל העולם).
In contrast, Rabbi Moses Nahmanides (Ramban, ca. 1195–ca. 1270) notes that Israel on its own is sometimes referred to in the Bible as “peoples” in plural (עמים in Deut 33:3, 19) and that even an individual tribe (Benjamin in Judges 5:14) is referred to this way. Similarly, Jacob, who is the father only of the tribes of Israel, receives a blessing of גוֹיִם “nations” or עַמִּים “peoples” in the plural (Gen 35:11, 48:4). Therefore, argues Nahmanides, here as well, the plural refers to Israel only:
אבל ישראל לבדם יקראו גוים ועמים.
But Israel, on its own, can be referred to as “nations” or “peoples.”
Another broad interpretation of the plural גוים comes from Rabbi Yehudah (2nd cent. C.E.), who argues that Abraham is the spiritual father of all nations (j. Bikkurim 1:4, 64a):
לשעבר היית אב לארם ועכשיו מכאן ואילך אתה אב לכל הגוים.
In the past you were the father of Aram, but now you are the father of all the nations.
Rather than emphasizing descent, Rabbi Yehudah’s interpretation evidently asserts the moral, cultural, or political influence of Abraham over the nations of the world in general.
Source-critical scholarship explains the variations by deriving them from different authors who each understood the divine promises in different ways. Within this paradigm of research, a J author was at work in Gen 12 where God is named YHWH. Gen 15 then expands on a Yahwistic concept of nationhood by envisaging a territory that stretches from Egypt to the Euphrates. The composition of Gen 15 is now much disputed, although it is clear that this chapter contains a revelation using the divine name YHWH (15:7).
In contrast, the image of Abraham and Sarah as parents of a “multitude of nations” comes from P, which is indicated by the characteristic use of El Shaddai in chapter 17. In this alternative political vision, the promised land is reduced to Canaan. P does not reveal the divine name YHWH to the ancestors until the time of Moses, in Exod 6:3, where the same limited “land of Canaan” is promised.
An Israelite Empire?
A number of different traditions speak about an imperial territory stretching from Egypt to the Euphrates. The far eastern lands are never said to be conquered, but the Book of Kings imagines nevertheless that they were brought under Solomon’s rule:
מלכים א ד:כ יְהוּדָה וְיִשְׂרָאֵל רַבִּים כַּחוֹל אֲשֶׁר עַל הַיָּם לָרֹב אֹכְלִים וְשֹׁתִים וּשְׂמֵחִים. ה:א וּשְׁלֹמֹה הָיָה מוֹשֵׁל בְּכָל הַמַּמְלָכוֹת מִן הַנָּהָר אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים וְעַד גְּבוּל מִצְרָיִם מַגִּשִׁים מִנְחָה וְעֹבְדִים אֶת שְׁלֹמֹה כָּל יְמֵי חַיָּיו.... ה:ד כִּי הוּא רֹדֶה בְּכָל עֵבֶר הַנָּהָר מִתִּפְסַח וְעַד עַזָּה בְּכָל מַלְכֵי עֵבֶר הַנָּהָר וְשָׁלוֹם הָיָה לוֹ מִכָּל עֲבָרָיו מִסָּבִיב.
1 Kgs 4:20 Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sands of the sea; they ate and drank and were content. 5:1 Solomon’s rule extended over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and the boundary of Egypt. They brought Solomon tribute and were subject to him all his life…. 5:4 For he had dominion over all the region beyond the River from Tiphsah to Gaza, over all the kings beyond the River; and he had peace on all sides.
Similarly, the depiction of an expansive territory west of the Euphrates, all the way to Egypt, corresponds with the lands held by Babylon (2 Kgs 24:7), and later with the Persian satrapy “Beyond the River.” Most likely, the imagined territory of Solomon—articulated with discourse from Genesis—reflects the social realities of the Persian period.
Judah as a Nation within a Friendly Empire
According to Esther 1:1, the Persian Empire was comprised of 127 provinces, each of which represent a different nation. Thus, for example, Jeremiah when describing the Persian conquest of Babylonia, refers to this military power as an assembly of nations:
ירמיה נ:ט כִּי הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי מֵעִיר וּמַעֲלֶה עַל בָּבֶל קְהַל גּוֹיִם גְּדֹלִים מֵאֶרֶץ צָפוֹן...
Jer 50:9 For see, I am rousing and leading an assemblage of great nations against Babylon from the lands of the north….
Regardless of when Genesis 17 was composed, we can imagine that audiences in the Persian period would have understood the analogy between Abraham’s many nations and the mighty Persian empire. If these late audiences were aware of Isaiah’s teachings, then they would also have known that Persia could be seen through this prophetic lens as YHWH’s empire.
Cyrus as YHWH’s Emissary
Indeed, the exilic prophet Deutero-Isaiah sees King Cyrus of Persia—the agent of Israel’s restoration to the promised land—as YHWH’s emissary:
ישעיה מה:א כֹּה אָמַר יְ־הוָה לִמְשִׁיחוֹ לְכוֹרֶשׁ... מה:ב אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ אֵלֵךְ וַהֲדוּרִים (אושר) [אֲיַשֵּׁר] דַּלְתוֹת נְחוּשָׁה אֲשַׁבֵּר וּבְרִיחֵי בַרְזֶל אֲגַדֵּעַ. מה:ג וְנָתַתִּי לְךָ אוֹצְרוֹת חֹשֶׁךְ וּמַטְמֻנֵי מִסְתָּרִים לְמַעַן תֵּדַע כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה הַקּוֹרֵא בְשִׁמְךָ אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Isa 45:1 Thus said YHWH to Cyrus, His anointed one… 45:2 “I will march before you and level the hills that loom up; I will shatter doors of bronze and cut down iron bars. 45:3 I will give you treasures concealed in the dark and secret hoards—So that you may know that it is I YHWH, the God of Israel, who call you by name.”
YHWH offers Cyrus this great success not out of support for the Persian Empire, but for Judah:
ישעיה מה:ד לְמַעַן עַבְדִּי יַעֲקֹב וְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּחִירִי וָאֶקְרָא לְךָ בִּשְׁמֶךָ אֲכַנְּךָ וְלֹא יְדַעְתָּנִי.
Isa 45:4 “For the sake of My servant Jacob, Israel My chosen one, I call you by name, I hail you by title, though you have not known Me.”
Cyrus fulfills, unwittingly, YHWH’s promises to Israel on earth. More specifically, in the passage preceding this prophecy, Persia will reestablish YHWH’s holy city, Jerusalem:
ישעיה מד:כח הָאֹמֵר לְכוֹרֶשׁ רֹעִי וְכָל חֶפְצִי יַשְׁלִם וְלֵאמֹר לִירוּשָׁלִַם תִּבָּנֶה וְהֵיכָל תִּוָּסֵד.
Isa 44:28 [I, YHWH] am the same who says of Cyrus, “He is My shepherd; He shall fulfill all My purposes! He shall say of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be rebuilt,’ And to the Temple: ‘You shall be founded again.’”
In this vision, Persia will rule the world, and part of its heavenly mandate will be the reinstatement of Israel/Judah as a nation in its own land.
With these Isaiah traditions in mind, we can now return to the book of Genesis with fresh questions. Could the editors of Genesis have reinterpreted the ancestral traditions in light of Isaiah’s political theology? What kind of national life would have been possible within the Persian empire?
A Holy Nation within the Persian Empire
While the Hebrew terms עמים and גוים are often interchangeable, עמים is used in some contexts to refer to small kinship groups, whereas גוי may imply a people group in possession of their own country, ruled over by their own king. This is the case in Genesis 17, where Abraham and Sarah are to be blessed with nations and kings. Similarly, the promise concerning Ishmael in Genesis 17:20 includes not just an expectation that he will become a fruitful and great nation (גוי גדול) but also that this nation will be ruled by twelve princes. So in Genesis 17, native sovereignty is considered a blessing.
On the other hand, Priestly law makes no provision for a monarch, preferring to emphasize the importance of the priesthood. And Deuteronomy 26:5 can conceive of Israel becoming a גוי גדול in Egypt—implying that Israel becomes a nation without a king. Israel rises “high above all nations” as a “holy people” (עם קדוש in Deut 7:6; 14:2, 21; 26:19; 28:9), who may or may not be blessed with a king.
A Postcolonial Perspective
While source critical arguments have often taken it for granted that J was composed earlier than P, some contemporary scholars reverse this chronology and even deny that there ever was a J document. It is likely that the texts of Genesis developed over time in conversation with each other. To complicate matters still further, it is often impossible to tell whether older texts have been adapted in some way by later editing.
However the texts developed, the audiences in the Persian period would have been presented with competing social visions of nationhood as they encountered the two later promises in Genesis discussed above. Does the nation have a modest territory in Canaan (17:4) or an imperial territory as large as Persia’s landholdings (15:18)? Why was this social imagination of empire adopted at all, when it seems so blatantly counter-factual?
To adopt some terminology developed in recent postcolonial studies, the expansive conceptions of Israel’s sovereignty and territory can be read as examples of imperial mimicry—not simply as a mirror of Persian imperialism, as some scholars have suggested, but something more subtle.
Both the multinational rhetoric in Genesis 17:4 and the expansive territory imagined in Genesis 15:18 implicitly reject the ultimacy of Persian sovereignty, and instead attribute imperial tropes to the figure of Abraham. Rather than preaching revolution, this is a “sly civility” in the sense that the texts appear gracious before the empire, while holding firmly to core convictions about YHWH’s own sovereignty. In effect, Israel’s God remains in control, rather than imperial kings or administrators.
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Prof. Mark G. Brett is Professor of Hebrew Bible at Whitley College, University of Divinity (Melbourne, Australia). He holds a Ph.D. in Old Testament and Philosophy from the University of Sheffield and an M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Brett is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities (FAHA) and has edited several volumes, including Ethnicity and the Bible (1996) and most recently (with Rachelle Gilmour) Political Theologies in the Hebrew Bible (Brill, forthcoming). He is the author of Biblical Criticism in Crisis (Cambridge, 1991); Genesis: Procreation and the Politics of Identity (Routledge, 2000); Decolonizing God (Sheffield 2008); Political Trauma and Healing (Eerdmans, 2016), and Locations of God: Political Theology in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford, 2019).
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