What Kind of Hero Is Abraham?
Abram’s Detail-less Journey to Canaan
I have always been puzzled by the brief description of Abram’s traveling to Canaan at the beginning of parashat Lekh Lekha. One would think that the momentous journey of such an important biblical character, whose cycle of stories occupies a quarter of the text of Genesis, would deserve some detail. Any novelist, short story writer, playwright or screenwriter worth his or her salt would salivate over this biographical moment, imagining Abram’s verbal reply to God’s sudden command, his inner struggles and doubts, or the physical obstacles he might have faced along the way.
Instead, we get virtually nothing. The text simply describes how Abram takes Lot, his own wife, their possessions, and וְאֶת הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן (“the persons whom they had made their own [?] in Haran”), and continues with:
וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן.
They went out to go to the land of Canaan. And they came to the land of Canaan (12:4).
A Missed Opportunity?
Reading these words, it feels as if a central moment in a man’s life has been deprived of its weight. And this is a man of whom we knew little in the first place—only that he came from Ur in Mesopotamia; that for some reason, possibly a larger migration, he was traveling with his father, his barren wife, his nephew, and some others; and that they stopped in Haran in Syria. We are given no clues about his upbringing, what he does for a living, or his inner religious life.
Call Scene: Contrast to other Biblical Characters
Even more mysteriously, the charge for him to continue traveling אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ (to an indeterminate “land that I will show you”) comes from a God with whom he has, until now, had no communication in the Bible. Unlike other biblical “call” scenes such as that of Moses (Exod 3:2-4:17) and Gideon (Judg 6:11-24), the text provides no paranormal sights or angels, and not even a description of the time of day such as we occasionally get in the later Abraham stories (the dream in chapter 15, or the “heat of the day” in 18).
Other central biblical figures such as Isaiah (Isa 6:1-13) and Ezekiel (Ezek 1:2-28) experience more detailed revelations of God, and certainly more interesting journeys. Jacob’s wandering from his parents’ home and back is bracketed by two powerful encounters with the divine, the ladder/stairway dream sequence in Gen. 28:10-22, and the wrestling match with the mysterious stranger in 32:25-33. Moses, fatefully returning to Egypt after the Burning Bush episode, is attacked by God, and only saved by the somewhat enigmatic intervention of his wife (Exodus 4:24-26).
Not a Classic Quest Story
The lack of any details in the story of Abram’s trip to Canaan contrasts starkly with what folklorists have labelled a “quest story,” the contours of which are summarized by the American mythologist Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this paradigm, a hero sets out to acquire something of great value in a faraway location, with the intent of returning and sharing the treasure with his people. In Campbell’s analysis, the quest reveals the true character of the hero; it sets up a series of tests or thresholds, and the person who passes them and returns safely is a hero indeed. In the typical version, he has come back from the land of the dead and undergone transformation, and is thus now truly worthy to lead his people.
Ancient examples of this pattern might include Gilgamesh, who undertakes a perilous journey, meeting various helpers along the way, to obtain the secret of eternal life, and Jason, who sails to a faraway land to retrieve the Golden Fleece.
Here too, what works for figures such as these is of little help in understanding the human hero of Lekh Lekha. Abraham undertakes a significant journey, to be sure, but as we have seen, the Bible is not the least bit interested in the details. Neither spiritual doubts nor physical obstacles appear to have any bearing on his behavior.
Abraham’s Quest in Modern Media
This is in marked contrast, not only to folklore presentations, but also to modern media representations of the Abraham stories, which more often than not portray the dramatic journey’s hardships (e. g., distance, climate), or insert dialogue with a character meant to be a foil to Abraham’s single-mindedness. The journey from Haran to Canaan, in these tellings, takes on a more epic, or at least humanly relatable, character.
Abraham as Profound Thinker
The lack of detail regarding Abraham’s early years is made up for in Second Temple and midrashic tradition where we encounter an oft-assumed but biblically erroneous portrait of Abraham as some kind of religious philosopher, the founder of a new religion. In this view, Abraham is the millennial genius who, in contrast to all his contemporaries, came up with the idea of monotheism, ultimately setting the stage for the development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
One example of this idea in rabbinic tradition comes from a medieval text labelled Ma’aseh Avraham (“The Acts of Abraham”) which describes his early life. In one of the anecdotes, the text portrays the three-year-old Abram hitting upon the idea of God’s oneness by observing the setting of the sun and moon, after his father had hidden him in a cave from King Nimrod, who wants to execute him:
כשהיה בן שלש שנים יצא מן המערה, הרהר בלבו מי ברא שמים וארץ ואותו. התפלל כל היום כולו לשמש, ולערב שקע השמש במערב וזרחה הלבנה במזרח. כשראה הירח והכוכבים סביב הירח אמר זהו שברא השמים והארץ ואותי, והכוכבים הללו שריו ועבדיו. עמד כל הלילה בתפלה לירח. לבקר שקע הירח במערב וזרח השמש במזרח, אמר אין ביד אלו כח. אדון יש עליהם אליו אתפלל ואליו אשתחוה.
When he was three years old, he left the cave and was thinking about who created the heavens, the earth, and him. He prayed all day to the sun, but at night the sun set in the west and the moon rose in the east. When he saw the moon, and how all the stars surrounded the moon, he said: “This must be who created the heavens, the earth, and me, and these stars are his ministers and servants.” All night, he stood and prayed to the moon. When morning came, the moon set in the west and the sun rose in the east. He said: “These have no power. They must have a master above them. I shall pray and bow to him alone.”
Despite his tender age, Abram concludes that these regularly worshipped heavenly bodies could not possibly be gods.
A second, classic Jewish expression of Abraham as religious thinker occurs in Midrash Genesis Rabbah 38:13. This well-known and beloved story paints Abraham as a boy with a perceptive religious mind. Realizing that idols (which, in the midrashic text, are manufactured by his father Terah in Ur) are not real gods, he contrives a way to demonstrate this to his father:
אמר ר’ חייא תרח עובד צלמים הוה, חד זמן נפק לאתר הושיב אברהם מוכר תחתיו… חד זמן אתת איתתא טעינא חד פינך דסלת אמ’ ליה הא לך קרב קדמיהון, קם נסיב בוקלסה ותברהון ויהב ההוא בוקלסה בידוי דרבה דבהון, כיון דאתא אבוה אמר ליה מה עבד להון כדין, אמר ליה מה נכפור לך אתת חדא איתתא טעינא חד פינך דסלת ואמרת לי קרב קומיהון, דין אמר אנא אכיל קדמאי ודין אמר אנא אכיל קדמאי, קם הדין רבה נסיב בוקלסה ותברהון, [אמר ליה] מה את מפלה בי, ידעין אינון, אמר ליה ולא ישמעו אזניך מפיך,
Rabbi Chiyya said: Terah was an idol worshiper. Once he went on a trip and he placed Abraham in charge of the store in his place…. One time a woman came carrying a dish of fine flour. She said to [Abraham]: “Here, offer this before them.” [Abraham] picked up a staff and broke [the idols] and placed the staff in the hands of the largest of them. When his father returned, he asked him: “Why did you do this to them?” [Abraham] replied: “Would I hide it from you? A woman came carrying a plate of fine flour and she told me to offer it before them. Each one of them said, ‘I will eat first’ until the largest of them picked up the staff and shattered the others.” [Terah] responded: “Why are you trying to fool me? I know what they are!” [Abraham] retorted: “Do your ears not hear what your mouth is saying?!”
From the rabbinic period onward, this story was used to promote the perception of Abraham as a religious pathfinder. It is one of the few pieces of Midrash to survive into the modern period in popular Jewish knowledge. I can attest that for something like 25 straight years, every single semester that I taught the book of Genesis a Jewish student would approach me after class to ask, “Why didn’t we read the story about Abraham smashing his father’s idols?”
While students have undoubtedly loved this tale because it shows a young person making his parent look foolish, its origin may lie in something deeper. Rabbinic literature is filled with tales of gentiles coming to the sages to have something about Jewish faith explained to them—not always with kind motives. The answers they receive are in line with the observations of other ancient Jewish thinkers such as Philo and Josephus, who sought to demonstrate to the Greco-Roman world that biblical literature and ideas, and revered figures, were on a par with the wisdom and sages of the Hellenistic world. But this hardly illuminates the biblical Abraham.
Not a Traditional Folk Hero
The biblical Abraham does not fit well the paradigm of hero figures outlined in folklore studies. A particularly useful list of a folk hero’s traits was put forth by Lord Raglan (Fitzroy Richard Somerset) in 1936, in which he builds on the psychoanalytic insights of Freud’s student, Otto Rank (1884-1939). The motifs he adduced include, among others:
- Royal birth (with perhaps a god as one parent);
- Attempted murder by the father;
- The child rescued and reared by others in a faraway land;
- Sparse details about his childhood;
- The hero’s return to the land of his birth and assumption of the throne after defeating a fearsome enemy;
- A period of rulership which includes introducing new laws;
- Eventual rejection and banishment by his people;
- A mysterious death, often at a high location;
- An unclear type and site of burial.
Using Raglan’s system, Moses “scores” quite high, with some 20 out of a possible 22 points. But Abraham does poorly.
An Obedient Hero
If modern comparative scholarship and ancient tradition cannot adequately explain Abraham’s status in Genesis, we have to look elsewhere. An alternate method for teasing out the nature of Abraham as hero can be found by paying close attention to the wording of the biblical text itself, especially in the opening lines of the parashah. In 12:4 we are told,
וַיֵּלֶךְ אַבְרָם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר אֵלָיו יְ-הוָה
Abram went as God had spoken to him
There is no verbal reply here, no questioning of God’s motives, no discussion. In its simplicity it echoes a refrain in the Noah story (6:22 and 7:5):
ו:כב וַיַּעַשׂ נֹחַ כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים כֵּן עָשָׂה.
6:22 Noah did exactly as God had spoken to him; thus he did.
ז:ה וַיַּעַשׂ נֹחַ כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר צִוָּהוּ יְ-הוָה.
7:5 Noah did exactly as YHWH had commanded him.
In other words, what is portrayed here is neither an issue of heroic deeds and crossing thresholds, nor of philosophical contemplation, but rather simply of obedience.
Abraham’s Defining Two “Lekh Lekha”s
Similarly, where one most expects an explication of Abraham’s inner life, in response to God’s troubling command in the Akedah (binding of Isaac; chapter 22), the Bible once again narrates only a series of actions: arising early, saddling, taking the son and servants, splitting wood, and proceeding to set out.
Once again, modern media representations are forced to fill in details. John Huston’s 1966 film, The Bible: In the Beginning, devotes some twenty minutes to the Akedah (Gen. 22:1-19). In the first sequence, Abraham (George C. Scott) hears God’s voice in the middle of the night, and wanders outside his tent to agonize and scream at the divine command. The journey to Moriah includes an extended stopover among the ruins of Sodom, where Abraham again questions God, quoting Gen. 18:25 (“Will not the judge of all the earth do what is just?”) and a passage from Isaiah (!) describing God’s power (Isa 40:22-23). The scene ends with Abraham cryptically telling Isaac, “In all things, we must obey Him.”
While literary scholars such as Erich Auerbach and Robert Alter have long noted the tendency of biblical narratives to reveal little in the way of background detail, especially regarding characters’ feelings, the fact that this is a prominent feature of Abraham’s two most significant journeys, in contrast to other parts of the Abraham cycle, gives food for thought.
In the inner stories about Abraham (chapters 13-21), he will constantly question God—i. e., where is the son continuously promised him? Why is He about to destroy cities containing innocent as well as wicked people? Why won’t Ishmael fit the bill as the long-awaited son?
Yet in the tales of chapters 12 and 22, which effectively bracket the Abraham stories, nothing matters but the hero’s immediate acquiescence to God’s charge. The language of the two tales is verbally linked by both the rare expression לך לך (“Go-you-forth”) and the parallel rhythmic pulse of God’s command, which call for Abraham to go to a vague destination (my translation):
Journey to Canaan
יב:א לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.
12:1 Go-you-forth from your land, from your kindred, from your father’s house, to the land that I will let you see.
Journey to Moriah
כב:ב קַח נָא אֶת בִּנְךָ אֶת יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר אָהַבְתָּ אֶת יִצְחָק וְלֶךְ לְךָ אֶל אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ.
22:2 Pray take your son, your favored one, whom you love, Yitzhak, and go-you-forth to the land of Moriyya/Seeing, and offer him up there as an offering-up on one of the mountains that I will tell you of.
The active and decisive man who heroically defeats kings in chapter 14, and who questions God’s justice in chapter 18, says not a single word when asked to, first, leave his past behind (surely a difficult task for a fully grown adult), and later, to abandon his future, in the person of the son on whom he has pinned all his earthly hopes. These bitter pills he swallows whole.
A Man of Obedience
For generations of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the image of the man who thus submits to God’s will serves as the eternal exemplar. Abraham emerges as one who, despite the seeming absurdity of the promises made to him, remains steadfast, and dares to take divinely commanded journeys without question. Guided by an unseen hand, he passes the tests laid out for him in Genesis, and so becomes a hero, not of the usual epic variety, but of a kind that became central to the three Western faiths.
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November 22, 2017
January 20, 2021
Prof. Everett Fox is the Allen M. Glick professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. He received his M.A. and Ph.D. from the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. Fox is the translator of The Five Books of Moses (Schocken Books, 1995), and The Early Prophets (Schocken Books, 2014).
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