The Portrayal of Abraham in The Testament of Abraham
A Jewish-Universalist Work
The Testament of Abraham is preserved in the Pseudepigrapha, which is a collection of assorted texts that are primarily thought to have been written between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E. by Jewish writers. This book is one of a few works that reflect the existence of a Jewish universalist worldview. It is openly and proudly Jewish: the author cites the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, and is familiar not only with biblical heroes such as Abraham and Sarah but also heroes that were known from extra-biblical Jewish sources and legends, such as the Archangel Michael. Virtually all scholars agree that the author of this book was a Jew.
On the other hand, it is striking that the author makes no mention of what most people in the Greco-Roman period regarded to be the most distinctive aspects of Jewish identity: Sabbath observance, the practice of circumcision, and the observance of dietary law. It makes no reference to the Jewish people; the author relates to all of humankind in a broader sense.
The worldview of this author was probably one that included the belief that all of humankind could worship the One True God and could enjoy salvation in the end-time. Similar worldviews – that is, evidence that a writer is openly engaging with his or her Jewish tradition but downplaying the distinctive aspects of Judaism in order to invite all of humankind to worship the One True God – is also evident in The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, the third book of the Sibylline Oracles, and The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. This particular book was written not only to espouse a universalist worldview, but also to entertain a Jewish audience by playfully subverting a more traditional notion of Abraham.
Abraham lived the measure of his life, 995 years. All the years of his life he lived in quietness, gentleness, and righteousness, and the righteous man was very hospitable.
This is the opening line of The Testament of Abraham, a late Second Temple period work which details the death of the patriarch. Although the writer opens his story by explicitly highlighting the righteousness of Abraham, the ensuing narrative undermines this claim. Abraham turns out, in this text, to be neither obedient nor merciful.
The Patriarch Who Won’t Go Gently into that Good Night
The Testament of Abraham tells of Abraham’s refusal to accompany the archangel Michael into the world to come and to thereby accept his death. In this version of Abraham’s death, the Archangel Michael is sent by God to retrieve Abraham and bring him into heaven. (This is a bonus gift for the patriarch; most human beings were brought into the afterlife by coming into contact with the Angel of Death.) Upon meeting Abraham, the latter promptly informs Michael that he will have to return to God empty-handed: Abraham refuses to go.
Absurd delay tactics ensue; Abraham says that he will agree to go with Michael if he is shown a vision of all human activity. Michael agrees, and takes Abraham on a chariot that travels around the world. On this trip, Abraham witnesses humans sinning and condemns these sinners to death. (This last act forces God to cut the trip short.) After this trip, Abraham again refuses to go – now he wants a vision of the afterlife. After seeing the place of divine judgment of human souls, Abraham changes his mind once more. Michael admits defeat, and God sends the Angel of Death to come for Abraham, but the Angel of Death only succeeds at bringing Abraham into the afterlife by tricking Abraham into touching him.
Contrast with Testament Literature
Abraham’s refusal to “go quietly,” as it were, contrasts with other ancient testament books of the same genre. In the Second Temple period, the “testament” was a well-known genre in which biblical heroes were described as instructing their children on their deathbeds regarding how to behave piously. Some such stories include The Testament of Adam, The Testament of Isaac, The Testament of Jacob, and The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs. In these texts, featured biblical heroes instructed their children regarding proper behavior by emphasizing such themes as the importance of sexual chastity, the avoidance of idols, and the strict adherence to God’s Law. These works are all termed Pseudepigrapha, “false writings,” because much later authors put their own views and words into the mouths of much earlier figures.
The Testament of Abraham stands apart from these texts since Abraham does not lie placidly on his deathbed, imparting timeless wisdom, and dying in sublime tranquility.Furthermore, by delaying and tricking Michael, Abraham is deliberately disobeying God in order to save his own life. This is hardly the stoic behavior or the philosophical hero imparting wisdom that was so popular in testament literature. Nor is it the image of the perfectly righteous and obedient servant of God that readers might expect from a Second Temple account of the great patriarch.
Abraham as Disobedient in Genesis
In the Torah’s depiction of Abraham, the chosen one of God, Abraham actually doubts God’s promise and questions God’s truthfulness. When God promises in Genesis 15, for instance, that Abraham will have children as plentiful as the stars and the sea, Abraham challenges God by asking to know by what means he will be guaranteed the fruition of this promise. In other words, the Torah itself does not always depict Abraham as obedient. In another biblical story, Abraham directly challenges God when God condemns Sodom to destruction (Gen 18) and Abraham attempts to convince God to recant.
Abraham as Obedient in Genesis
Other biblical passages depict Abraham as entirely righteous and obedient. Upon God’s command, Abraham abandons his family and hometown and goes to the land that God shows him (Gen 12). He sends away his son Ishmael (Gen 21), despite the emotional pain of this act, because God tells him to listen to Sarah’s demand. The classic text that supports the image of Abraham as obedient is Genesis 22, in which God demands that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, and Abraham does not make so much as a sound of protest.
Thus, the Hebrew Bible presents Abraham as a complex character whose willingness to trust in God and defer to divine authority is not always manifest. The Testament of Abraham picks up on this tension, which allows the author to open with a description of Abraham’s righteousness but still tell a story in which Abraham ignores God’s will and refuses to die.
Abraham as Judgmental and Lacking in Mercy
One shocking aspect of Abraham’s personality in the Testament of Abraham is his extreme judgmentalism towards sinners. While Abraham travels the world in the heavenly chariot with the archangel Michael, he observes human activity and condemns sinners to death without, as God points out him, giving them more time on earth to repent, as God does. The author draws a distinct contrast between Abraham’s severe behavior and God’s merciful behavior:
And [Abraham] saw in another place men breaking into a house and carrying off the possessions of others, and he said, “Lord, Lord, command that fire come down from heaven and consume them.” And as he was speaking fire came down from heaven and consumed them. And immediately a voice came down from heaven to the Commander-in-chief, speaking thus, “O Michael, Commander-in-chief, command the chariot to stop and turn Abraham away, lest he should see the entire inhabited world. For if he were to see all those who pass their lives in sin, he would destroy everything that exists. For behold, Abraham has not sinned and has no mercy on sinners. But I made the world, and I do not want to destroy any one of them; but I delay the death of the sinner until he should convert and live.”
Here Abraham’s lack of empathy towards his fellow men—sinning men though they are—draws God’s ire. Although God admits that Abraham is entirely sinless, Abraham’s virtue is not complete without the willingness to bestow mercy upon all of humankind. This lack of mercy presents the patriarch as unsympathetic towards people, and contrasts with God and His mercy.
This portrayal of Abraham and God stands in some tension with one of the most famous and powerful stories about Abraham, the defense of Sodom. Although the Sodom story is not explicitly referenced in The Testament of Abraham, the portrayal of Abraham in this book as someone who sees sinners and condemns them to death was likely meant to recall this biblical story. Indeed, the book’s many citations and paraphrases of the Abrahamic stories in the Septuagint make it clear that the author was highly familiar with the scriptural stories about Abraham.
Abraham Argues with God About Sodom
According to Genesis 18, God sees the wickedness of Sodom and decides that the city must be destroyed. Upon informing Abraham of this decision, the latter reacts by begging for mercy, and even accusing God of being unfair. Thus, according to this biblical text, Abraham is so full of compassion for innocents that he is ready to overlook the sinners and God lacks mercy and compassion. And yet, The Testament of Abraham flips this on its head and makes Abraham into the merciless wielder of punishment with God begging Abraham to give people another chance. Although the contradiction between the stories is not absolute—Abraham never expresses compassion for the sinners themselves in the biblical story, just the innocent bystanders—nevertheless, the role reversal in the Testament of Abraham is striking.
Although it is one of the few ancient books to portray Abraham in a complicated, critical light, it seems that the author of The Testament of Abraham saw the characteristics of Abraham in the book of Genesis that are in tension with one another – his piety, his argumentativeness, his willingness to challenge God, and his concern for other human beings. Instead of selecting only the best traits and applying them to his character, the author of this book used Abraham’s negative traits to craft a story that would have appealed to readers in its humanizing portrayal of Abraham.
Abraham is not a perfect robot; he is fallible, like other people. Abraham is not unconcerned with mortality; he fears death in the same way that the average person does. Abraham does not ignore the existence of evil and the theological challenges that this poses to the perfect goodness of God; Abraham recognizes the existence of evil, and he is disturbed by it. Abraham is the Every Man who – despite his normalcy – was chosen by God, and protected by God, and nurtured by God.
The Influence of The Testament of Abraham on Portrayals of Moses
The portrayal of Abraham as an individual who refuses to accept his death was influential enough that it found its way into later midrashic literature; the story probably influenced a prominent midrashic stream regarding Moses refusing to accept his death and running away from the Angel of Death. Of the four rabbinic sources dated to second through sixth centuries that discuss the death of Moses, Sifre Deuteronomy and Midrash Tannaim, both of which were probably compiled in the third century C.E., bear the strongest parallels to The Testament of Abraham.
At the same hour, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to the Angel of Death, “Go and fetch Me the soul of Moses.” The Angel went and stood before Moses, and said to him, “Moses, give me your soul.” Moses retorted, “Where I sit, you have no right even to stand, and yet you dare say to me, ‘Give me your soul?!’” Moses thus rebuked him, and the Angel left with a reprimand. The Angel of Death then went back and report to the Almighty. Whereupon the Holy One, Blessed be He, told him once more, ‘Go and fetch Me his soul.” The Angel went looking for him at his place, but could not find him.
He went to the sea and asked it, “Moses, have you seen him?” The sea replied, “Since the day that he made Israel pass through me, I have not seen him.” He then went to the mountains and hills and asked them, “Moses, have you seen him?” They replied, “Since the day that Israel received the Torah on Mount Sinai, we have not seen him.” He thereupon went toGehennom and asked it, “Moses, have you seen him?” She replied, “I have heard his name, but I have not seen him.” He then went to the ministering angels and asked them, “Moses, have you seen him?” They replied, “Go and ask human beings.” He finally went to Israel and asked them, “Moses, have you seen him?” They said to him, “God has fathomed his way, and has concealed him from the life of the world to come, and no creature knows his whereabouts.” (Sifre Deuteronomy, Piska 305)
Several medieval texts that describe Moses’ death also sound quite similar to The Testament of Abraham. One notes:
“When the day came for Moses our Teacher to leave this world, the Holy One, Blessed be He said to him, “Your day to die is approaching.” [Moshe] said before him, “Master of the world: After all the toil that I toiled, you tell me I’m going to die? ‘I will not die, for I will live’” (Psalms 118:17). The Holy One, Blessed be He answered him, ‘You have had enough [life] until here; come and do not extend [your stay on earth]. Call Joshua and I will command him [concerning how to lead the Israelites.]’ [Moses] said to Him, ‘Master of the World, for what reason am I to die? If it is on account of the honor of Joshua, let Joshua to enter the [fill in] and I will stay out.’ The Holy One, Blessed be He answered [Moses], ‘And do to him as he would have done to you?’ Moses answered, “Yes.” Immediately Moses agreed and followed Joshua and called him ‘Rabbi Joshua.’ Joshua became very frightened and said to [Moses], “You call me a Rabbi?!” Moses answered Joshua, “Do you want me to live and not to die?” Joshua answered, ‘Yes.’”
This midrashic passage contains striking behavior on the part of both Moses and God. When summoned by the Angel of Death, Moses sharply rebukes the Angel and declares his summoning void since Moses is superior to him. God’s behavior surprises the reader as well; He betrays the Angel of Death by hiding Moses from him, even though God Himself has commanded the Angel to find and kill Moses.
The midrash may be playing with the theme in The Testament of Abraham in which God sends Michael to find Abraham, but once found, Abraham refuses to follow Michael. Like the Angel of Death in this midrash, Michael responds by returning to God and asking him what to do. In The Testament of Abraham, God devises a plan designed to enable Michael to complete his mission, but in this midrash, God gives the Angel of Death an impossible task, refuses to help him, and makes it clear that he is on Moses’ side. This midrash thus enforces an image of harmony between God and Moses.
A parallel account of God hiding Moses from the Angel of Death is also found in Midrash Tannaim to Deuteronomy 34:5. Here God explicitly assures Moses that He will protect him from the Angel of Death’s pursuit. The Angel of Death travels to more places than the account in Sifre Deuteronomy, and like the latter account, these places symbolize various locations where important events occurred that impacted the destiny of the Israelites during Moses’ tenure as their leader.
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November 11, 2014
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Dr. Malka Zeiger Simkovich is a the Crown-Ryan Chair of Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and the director of their Catholic-Jewish Studies program. She holds a Ph.D. in Second Temple Judaism from Brandeis University, an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University, and a B.A. in Bible Studies and Music Theory from Yeshiva University’s Stern College. In addition to her many articles, Malka is the author of The Making of Jewish Universalism: From Exile to Alexandria (2016) and Discovering Second Temple Literature: The Scriptures and Stories that Shaped Early Judaism (2018).
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