The Unaccountable Innovation

In the revolving drama of the heavens, primitive peoples saw an immortal, wheel-like pattern that was predictive of mortal life. At the center of this Wheel of Life they found the Hub of Death. The correspondences they discerned between earthly and heavenly realities are pictured in their earliest art—the spirals, zigzags, and lozenges, abounding almost everywhere in the most ancient monuments left to us. The spiral, ever turning, ever beginning again, is the image of the cyclical nature of reality—of the phases of the moon, the changing of the seasons, the cycle of a woman’s body, the ever-turning Wheel of birth, copulation, and death. The zigzags sometimes represent lightning, which was associated with the moon, because the moon was thought to control all water and fertility—and lightning precedes a storm. But, most anciently, zigzags are the symbols of flowing water, found on neolithic pottery and among the oldest hieroglyphs of Egypt. The lozenge, or diamond shape, is the ancient symbol for the vulva, which would one day be reduced to a cleft triangle and become the aboriginal Sumerian pictograph for “woman.” Recently, there was discovered in Australia what may turn out to be the earliest human art: a series of circles engraved on a 130-foot sandstone monolith that takes us back seventy-five thousand years—archaic man’s first acknowledgment of the Great Pattern that he read everywhere, the ever-turning Wheel.

Religion is a complex phenomenon; and the correspondences soon became more complex, requiring orders of priests and shamans for their correct interpretation and effective use. The phallic snake, which sheds its skin and also disappears for part of each year, and thus was thought to die and regenerate itself, became in many different cultures the moon’s earthly manifestation. Idols recovered from such widely distant places as the Panchan and Ngan-Yang cultures of neolithic China and the Amerindian civilization of Calchaqui show the lozenge-decorated serpent, male and female combined, symbol of dualism reintegrated and potent predictor of fertility. Another moon-creature was the spider, whose silvery, cyclical web traps its victims in an image of man’s fate, which the moon, who sways all living things, was thought to control. (To spin is to predestine; and some of the oldest words for fate, such as the Anglo-Saxon wyrd, come from the Indo-European verb uert, meaning “to turn” or “to spin.”) The bull, whose crescent horns are the very image of the sickle moon, was sacred to Nanna-Sin, who was himself “the powerful calf with strong horns,” “the young bull of the sky.” The pearl was the Moon god’s amulet, the shining little moon contained within the vulva of the oyster. In pre-Columbian Mexico the snail, which like the moon, displays and withdraws its horns, was sacred to the moon, as was in Ice Age Europe the bear, who appears and disappears with the seasons and is the ancestor of humanity. Among peoples as widely dispersed as the African Bushmen, the Samoyed, and the Chinese, a whole series of lunar figures who were missing a hand or foot (like the incomplete moon) were characterized by their power to bring rain and subsequent fertility.

(1) The pictograph in the top row originally represents “star” but also comes to designate “god.” (2) The cleft triangle (which had an even more ancient antecedent, the lozenge or diamond shape) stands for the female genitals but also comes to designate “woman.” (3) Mountains. (4) “Mountain woman,” that is, a Semitic slave girl.
Pictured above (from left to right) is the evolution of each sign from an original pictograph into a more easily incised symbol, shaped by the strokes of a small wedge-shaped stylus—thus cuneiform (or wedge-shaped) writing.

In examining these correspondences that primitive man found so obvious, we post-Aristotelians are more likely to be struck by their illogic than by their appositeness. To see with the eyes of primitive society, we must abandon both our logic and our science. “The point,” writes Eliade, “of all these analogies is first of all to unite man with the rhythms and energies of the cosmos, and then to unify the rhythms”—as in the sacred copulation rite—“fuse the centers and finally effect a leap into the transcendent,” what Eliade calls the “primal unity.” The underlying purpose of primitive theology was no different from that of any other human attempt to reach the truth: these people, our distant ancestors, were looking for knowledge that was effective, that could help them achieve prosperity, progeny, and the only immortality available to human beings—assurance that their seed would not die with them. And for the more mystical among them, there was the belief that this knowledge could put them in touch with something beyond themselves. Every rite has its irrational, mystical center, its acme of consecration, its moment out of time; and whether it is the transformation of the bread and wine at Mass, the whirling of the dervish, or the orgasm of Sumer, its purpose is ecstatic union, however fleeting, with transcendent reality, with the ultimate, with what is beyond mutability. For the ancients, such reality was beyond earth, beyond even the moon, beyond all becoming. “Supra lunam sunt aeterna omnia,” wrote Cicero, echoing a most ancient Mediterranean belief in absolutes: “Beyond the moon are all the eternal things.”

A century or two after the beginning of the second millennium B.C., a family of Ur found wanting this static worldview of heavenly absolutes and earthly corruption. They were Terah’s family, as we read in Genesis, the first book of the Bible:

    Now these are the begettings of Terah:

    Terah begot Avram,1 Nahor and Haran;

    and Haran begot Lot.

    Haran died in the living-presence of Terah his father in the land of his kindred, in Ur of the Chaldeans.

    Avram and Nahor took themselves wives;

    The name of Avram’s wife was Sarai,

    The name of Nahor’s wife was Milcah—daughter of Haran, father of Milcah and father of Yisca.

    Now Sarai was barren, she had no child.

    Terah took Avram his son and Lot son of Haran, his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, wife of Avram his son,

    They set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans, to go to the land of Canaan.

    But when they had come as far as Harran, they settled there.

    And the days of Terah were five years and two hundred years,

    then Terah died,

    in Harran.

At first glance, this may strike the reader as an unimpressive narrative that, in its plainness and peculiarity (Terah, whoever he was, did not live for more than two centuries), has certain affinities with the narratives of Sumer, if none of their mythological dash. But there are surprising dissimilarities: the careful preserving of the names and lineages of ancient characters—even of women—who were neither gods nor kings; and the importance placed on what appear at least to be exacting genealogical records.

Terah’s was a family of Semites, long settled at Ur, now “the land of his kindred.” His ancestors, hundreds of years earlier, had been part of the movement of wandering Semitic tribes that had overwhelmed the power of Sumer and been subsequently absorbed by its superior urban culture. The lines quoted here, a translation from the Semitic tongue called Hebrew, are found in Genesis just after the stories of human beginnings—from the Creation to the Flood. But unlike the stories that precede it, this chronicle of Terah’s family sounds not like a fairy tale but like an attempt at real historical narrative; and though, in this written form, it is probably less than three thousand years old, it is the product of an oral tradition that takes us back almost four thousand years, close to the beginning of the second millennium B.C., to the period of Babylonian Sumer’s Golden Age under the aegis of Hammurabi, the world’s first emperor.

We cannot be sure what these citizens of Ur had in mind when they set out. Probably not much. They traveled northwest along the Euphrates from Ur to Harran, a city also dedicated to the moon, a sister city of Ur and very like it in outlook—San Francisco to Ur’s New York. So their first attempt at relocation may have been only to improve their prospects, and there is some reason to believe that they meant to settle permanently in Harran. For Avram, however, Harran was to be but a stage. What is odd about this passage is the assumption that the family’s ultimate destination is to be “the land of Canaan,” a hinterland of the Semitic tribes, who (at least in Sumerian caricature) ate their meat raw and didn’t even know how to bury their dead. No one whose family was established at Ur would have thought to leave it except for a similar city. So what we may be witnessing here is a migration in the wrong direction, a regression to simpler roots from which the urbanized Semites who had settled in Sumer had been cut off for centuries. But this peculiar migration would change the face of the earth by permanently changing the minds and hearts of human beings.

In Harran, Terah and his family struck it rich; and it was almost certainly in Harran that a voice spoke to Avram and said:


    from your land,

    from your kindred,

    from your father’s house,

    to the land that I will let you see.

    I will make a great nation of you

    and will give-you-blessing

    and will make your name great.

    Be a blessing!

    I will bless those who bless you,

    he who curses you, I will damn.

    All the clans of the soil will find blessing through you!”

So, comments the anonymous narrator, “Avram went.” And with him went Lot, Sarai, “all their gain they had gained and the souls they had made in Harran,” that is, two extended households on the move once more. But in addition to their family members and chattel, they took their Sumerian outlook. However much of a discontinuity with the past this journey would come to represent, Avram, Sarai, and Lot, their families and slaves were people of Sumer and could no more escape the mind-set of their culture than we can escape ours. Something new is happening here; but it is happening as all things new must happen—in the midst of the old, usual, ordinary reality of what was then daily life. “Nova ex veteris,” runs the old Latin paradox. “The new must be born out of the old.”

For one thing, this family obviously adhered to Sumerian notions of the importance of business; otherwise it would hardly have occurred to the laconic narrator to mention “all their gain they had gained”—all the wealth they had accumulated during their stay in Harran. We know some of the ideas they brought with them—we can almost X-ray their mental baggage—for we can trace Sumerian religious notions in the earliest writings of the descendants of Avram. The voice that spoke to Avram was his patronal god; and in Avram’s mind he may not have been, to begin with, much different from Lugalbanda, Gilgamesh’s patronal god, whose statue Gilgamesh anointed for good luck. There were many gods, but each human being had a guardian spirit—an ancestor or angel—charged with taking special care of him. These little gods, represented by amulets and portable statues, were, like all the gods, essentially familial—gods of the person, the family, the city, the tribe—and were jealous and contentious, like all family members. Even if in a particular situation they were not responsible for evil (though sometimes they were), in many situations they were powerless to counter evil—and, in any case, human beings were full of evil. “Man behaves badly,” pronounces Ut-napishtim sagely. “Never has a sinless child been born,” warns a favorite Sumerian proverb. The way to success was to satisfy the duties of one’s cult, whatever those might be—which is why Sumerian temples were described with such precision and liturgies (including orgies and sacred couplings) enacted with such attention. It was by just such attention to cultic detail that Ut-napishtim had been found just; and such acts of piety were a Sumerian’s only insurance against the ill will of the gods.

We have already seen in the Epic of Gilgamesh some of the many mythological elements that would find their echo in the Bible. (The Gilgamesh story was so powerful that it would also influence the Greek stories that Homer would collect into the Odyssey as well as the Arabian Nights of medieval Islam.) As late as the sixth century B.C., in the Jerusalem temple itself, Israelite women would sit and weep for the god Dumuzi (Tammuz in the Bible), which the prophet Ezekiel notes with loathing. (The myth of the dying god casts so long a shadow that even today Tammuz is the name for a month in the Jewish calendar.) The family of Terah no doubt took with them on their journey the stories of Sumer about the long-lived ancients and the ill-tempered gods—such as the story about the jealous goddess Ishtar, who had a sacred “tree of life,” guarded by a serpent, and the story about the ancestral figure whose unique piety enabled him to save a remnant of life in the great flood. And as the family of Terah looked back over their shoulders to the eastern horizon, the last thing they saw of Sumer was the ziggurat of Harran, that bold Sumerian attempt to scale the heavens that would one day become the fabulous, foolish Tower of Babel in Genesis.

But it is also true that, however “Sumerian” this expedition into the wilderness may have looked to the casual observer, its leader carried with him a brand-new idea. We know Avram was heading to Canaan, but did he? It is certain that the mention of Canaan in the summary account of the begettings and travels of Terah and his family is by way of overview and does not necessarily indicate that this destination was actually known to Avram when he started out. There is no reason to think that Avram knew where he was going or anything more than what his god had told him—that he was to “go forth” (the Hebrew imperative “lekhlekha” has an insistent immediacy that English cannot duplicate) on a journey of no return to “the land that I will” show you, that this god wouldsomehow make of this childless man “a great nation,” and that all humanity would eventually find blessing through him.

So, “wayyelekh Avram” (“Avram went”)—two of the boldest words in all literature. They signal a complete departure from everything that has gone before in the long evolution of culture and sensibility. Out of Sumer, civilized repository of the predictable, comes a man who does not know where he is going but goes forth into the unknown wilderness under the prompting of his god. Out of Mesopotamia, home of canny, self-serving merchants who use their gods to ensure prosperity and favor, comes a wealthy caravan with no material goal. Out of ancient humanity, which from the dim beginnings of its consciousness has read its eternal verities in the stars, comes a party traveling by no known compass. Out of the human race, which knows in its bones that all its striving must end in death, comes a leader who says he has been given an impossible promise. Out of mortal imagination comes a dream of something new, something better, something yet to happen, something—in the future.

If we had lived in the second millennium B.C., the millennium of Avram, and could have canvassed all the nations of the earth, what would they have said of Avram’s journey? In most of Africa and Europe, where prehistoric animism was the norm and artists were still carving and painting on stone the heavenly symbols of the Great Wheel of Life and Death, they would have laughed at Avram’s madness and pointed to the heavens, where the life of earth had been plotted from all eternity. His wife is barren as winter, they would say; a man cannot escape his fate. The Egyptians would have shaken their heads in disbelief. “There is none born wise,” they would say, repeating the advice of their most cherished wise men. “Copy the forefathers. Teach him what has been said in the past; then he will set a good example.” The early Greeks might have told Avram the story of Prometheus, whose quest for the fire of the gods ended in personal disaster. Do not overreach, they would advise; come to resignation. In India, he would be told that time is black, irrational, and merciless. Do not set yourself the task of accomplishing something in time, which is only the dominion of suffering. In China, the now anonymous sages whose thoughts would eventually influence the I Ching would caution that there is no purpose in journeys or in any kind of earthly striving; the great thing is to abolish time by escaping from the law of change. The ancestors of the Maya in America would point to their circular calendars, which like those of the Chinese repeat the pattern of years in unvarying succession, and would explain that everything that has been comes around again and that each man’s fate is fixed. On every continent, in every society, Avram would have been given the same advice that wise men as diverse as Heraclitus, Lao-Tsu, and Siddhartha would one day give their followers: do not journey but sit; compose yourself by the river of life, meditate on its ceaseless and meaningless flow—on all that is past or passing or to come—until you have absorbed the pattern and have come to peace with the Great Wheel and with your own death and the death of all things in the corruptible sphere.


On reaching Canaan, Avram “passed through the land, as far as the Place of Shekhem”—which would become for Avram’s descendants a sacred space, for Avram “built a slaughter-site there,” a small altar by an oak tree where he could offer animal sacrifices to his god. And here at this resting place, the god for the first time identifies this land as the land of the promise: “I give this land to your seed!” “This land”—the identification is fuzzy; there are no demarcations as yet. But from now on each time the god speaks to Avram over the course of many years, the original promise will gain in concreteness. All the same, during these many years Avram and his people, these sophisticated urbanites, will continue to live without fixed abode or title to any land, will continue to be “sojourners”—which is how they will describe themselves. We may begin to suspect that this benighted troupe of wanderers has been taken in by the force of Avram’s personality and that Avram has been sent on a wild goose chase at the prompting of his own disordered brain.

For all that, Avram exhibits a sly resourcefulness that we seldom associate with madmen. When famine strikes Canaan, Avram heads for Egypt—“to sojourn there.” But in this even more alien territory, where he must guard not against primitive tribes but against a god-king whom no one can gainsay, Avram hatches a scheme, saying to Sarai his wife:

    “Now here, I know well that you are a woman fair to look at. [One can imagine Sarai enjoying this compliment and then her face falling as—]

    It will be, when the Egyptians see you and say: ‘She is his wife,’

    that they will kill me, but you they will allow to live.

    Pray say that you are my sister

    so that it may go well with me on your account, that I myself may give thanks to you.”

Sure enough, Pharaoh sticks Sarai in his harem, her “brother” Avram receiving in return “sheep and oxen, donkeys, servants and maids, she-asses and camels.”2 We are never told whether Pharaoh gets around to violating Sarai, nor does the text give any clue to Sarai’s feelings in the matter. But we are told that Avram’s god “plagued Pharaoh with great plagues” and that somehow Pharaoh learns the cause. Avram is brought before the Egyptian king, who utters a memorable “Ma-zot?!” (“What’s this?!”), an almost comic exclamation of frustration often heard in modern Israel. Then, in a turn of phrase not far removed from an old vaudeville routine, Pharaoh sputters:

    “Why did you not tell me that she is your wife?

    Why did you say: ‘She is my sister?’

    So I took her for myself as a wife.

    But now, here is your wife, take her and go!”

Off goes Avram, brought as quickly as possible to the Egyptian border by Pharaoh’s bouncers, “who escorted him and his wife and all that was his.” These being the last words of this episode, the narrator, who is getting a big kick out of recording the little farce, wants us to know that Avram has not only saved his neck but greatly increased his wealth. Then, just in case we’ve missed the point, he adds at the beginning of the next episode that “Avram traveled up from Egypt” and “was exceedingly heavily laden with livestock, with silver, and with gold.” In the Egyptian anecdote Sarai has served only as a pawn whose feelings are of no account: the point is the nomadic progenitor’s cleverness at the expense of the Egyptian big wig.

How did powerless Avram, nomadic sojourner in the wilderness of Canaan, ever come in contact with mighty Pharaoh, stationary god-king of Egypt? Almost on the heels of the Egyptian anecdote comes a strangely worded episode that gives us the answer. The famine has passed, and Avram’s nephew Lot is now settled in Sodom, one of the “cities of the plain” that may have stood in what is today the southern basin of the Dead Sea. But Avram, refusing city life, has pitched his tent on the west side of the Jordan “by the Oaks of Mamre.” Word reaches Avram that Lot has been taken prisoner in the course of a war between two leagues of kings, one of Canaanites, the other of Sumerians:

    One who escaped came and told Avram the Hebrew—

    he was dwelling by the Oaks of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol and brother of Aner,

    they were Avram’s covenant-allies.

    When Avram heard that his brother [actually nephew]3 had been taken prisoner,

    he drew out his retainers, his house-born slaves, eighteen and three hundred, and went in pursuit as far as Dan.

Ma-zot? Avram has 318 slaves, not to mention family members and other “retainers”? Avram has “covenant-allies,” like any great chieftain? Avram, the quixotic quester, the self-conscious nomad, can organize an army of pursuit that marches all the way from Mamre (modern Hebron) in the Canaanite south to Dan in the extreme north, a journey of some hundred miles? The clue to the correct interpretation of this text lies in its description of Avram as “the Hebrew,” a description found nowhere else. This story, though woven into the fabric of Genesis, comes not from the traditions of the Children of Abraham, who never called themselves “the Hebrews,” but from the oral lore of their neighbors. Here we see Avram not through the gentle idealization of subsequent generations of his heirs, but as he was seen by his contemporaries. Avram, as the Egyptian episode has already hinted, was neither rube nor flower child, seeking sweetness and light in the desert. He was a calculating clansman who for his own reasons had chosen to leave the great cities of Sumer for the unsettled life of Canaan, but who was otherwise taking no chances: he was a powerful chieftain with wealth and men at his disposal.

He succeeds in freeing Lot and then, returning south, binds himself even more closely to the local kings by refusing to share in the spoils of their victory:

    “So that you should not say: I made Avram rich.

    Nothing for me!

    Only what the lads have consumed,

    and the share of the men who went with me—Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre,

    let them take their share.”

Avram was no half-crazed, solipsistic idealist but a man among men. Even in his dealings with his god there is a note of the self-confident, calculating desert chieftain, who knows how to deal. When he hears the god’s voice speaking the great words “Be not afraid,” Avram complains, “What would you give me?—for I am going (to die) accursed,” and then goes on to say that he has decided to leave his estate to his chief servant, for “to me you have not given seed.” To this indirect accusation, the god replies:

    “This one shall not be heir to you,

    rather, the one that goes out from your own body …”

    He brought him outside and said:

    “Pray look toward the heavens and count the stars,

    can you count them?”

    And he said to him:

    “So shall your seed be.”

Though the heavens continue to be mined for metaphor, they are no longer predictive of anything. It is only the god who can predict; the heavens are reduced to serving him as illustration. This is just fine with Avram: the narrator brings the incident to a close by remarking that Avram—the canny, worldly-wise chieftain that we now know him to be—“trusted in” this god and that the god deemed his trust “as righteous-merit on his part.” For this trust we are given no reason other than Avram’s insight: this self-reliant man relies on his own judgment to interpret correctly what is going on. Out of an age of tall tales of warriors and kings, all so like one another that they are hard to tell apart, comes this story of a skeptical, worldly patriarch’s trust in a disembodied voice. This is becoming, however incredibly, the story of an interpersonal relationship.

Sarai the pawn, however, has not been let in on any of this and grumbles against a god “who has obstructed me from bearing,” even after ten years in Canaan. Faithful to the customs of her time, she presents Avram with her Egyptian maid as sexual surrogate, so that “perhaps I may be built-up-with-sons through her!” But once the maid, Hagar, becomes pregnant, she begins to treat her mistress dismissively, which is more than poor Sarai can take. When Avram gives Sarai leave to treat Hagar as she will, Sarai’s beatings drive Hagar out of the encampment into the wilderness, where an angel instructs her to return to Sarai, no matter the abuse, for Hagar too will have seed “too many to count.” Her son Yishmael (or Ishmael) shall be another Enkidu, “a wild-ass of a man, his hand against all, hand of all against him”—father of the Arabs. Distraught Hagar does as she is bid, but not before giving a new name to the god whose presence is signaled by the angelic messenger. She calls him “God of Seeing” and “the Living-One Who-Sees-Me,” and it is just this Seeing that will occupy the rest of the narrative.

Avram is now a very old man—according to our text, ninety-nine. And though we may take this number as a faint echo of Sumerian exaggeration, there is no reason to doubt that Avram and Sarai are well beyond the hope of children of their bodies. But the god is becoming more than a voice: he is “seen” by Avram, who is told, “I am God Shaddai”—a name for which we may have lost the linguistic key, though many have thought it means “Mountain God” or “God of the High Place.” “Walk in my presence!” invites the god. “And be wholehearted!” Seeing the god in all his splendor and being invited to such intimacy causes Avram to fall “upon his face.” The relationship is becoming more intense; and as we witness its development, we must acknowledge something just below the surface of events: without Avram’s highly colored sense of himself—of his own individuality—there could hardly be any relationship, yet the relationship is also made possible by the exclusive intensity that this incipient monotheism requires, so much so that we may almost say that individuality (with its consequent possibility of an interpersonal relationship) is the flip side of monotheism.

Once again, the god promises Avram the land of Canaan and progeny beyond all telling, even royal progeny (“yes, kings will go out from you”). And now the god wants to covenant with Avram, just as chieftains covenant with one another. In this covenant, Avram is to have a new name, Avraham (or Father-of-Many-Nations), as is Sarai, who will henceforth be Sara (or Princess). Avram and his god are to establish an unbreakable bond, which in this period was always contracted in blood, usually the blood of animal sacrifice. But the blood of this covenant is to be Avram’s own and that of “every male among you”:

    “At eight days old, every male among you shall be circumcised, throughout your generations,

    whether house-born or bought with money from any foreigner, who is not your seed.

    Circumcised, yes, circumcised shall be your house-born and your money-bought (slaves),

    so that my covenant may be in your flesh as a covenant for the ages.”

It is impossible for any man to forget his penis, his own personal life force. By this covenant, the children of Avram will be virtually unable to forget the god who never forgets them and who in his growing splendor and exclusivity apless and less like a portable amulet to be rubbed for good luck. This god is losing the guardian-angel aspect of the Sumerian patronal gods and is turning into—God. To us this covenant may appear barbaric. But within the rigid simplicities of Canaan and Mesopotamia, this “covenant in your flesh,” this permanent reminder, makes perfect sense.

The man who is now Avraham, still on his face, begins to laugh, thinking, “To a hundred-year-old-man shall there be (children) born? Or shall ninety-year-old Sara give birth?” Then aloud: “If only Yishmael might live in your presence!”—in other words, let the promise fall to Yishmael, who has the great virtue of already existing. Avraham is only trying to help God out, get him to be more realistic. But though God will make Yishmael bear fruit “exceedingly, exceedingly,” his covenant shall be with the child “whom Sara will bear you at this set-time, another year hence.” So Sara the pawn, who’s never gotten anything she wants out of life, is to become pregnant in three months. At last, something tangible.

“When he had finished speaking with Avraham, God went up, from beside Avraham.” Interview over; circumcisions begin. And barely has Avraham finished circumcising himself and “all his household” than visitors arrive. Avraham, no doubt a little winded from his activity, is “sitting at the entrance to his tent at the heat of the day”—just as we can see Bedouin chieftains in the punishing sun of today’s Middle East, sitting under their tent flap, hoping to catch a breeze.

    He lifted up his eyes and saw:

    here, three men standing over against him.

    When he saw them, he ran to meet them from the entrance to his tent and bowed to the earth

    and said:

    “My lords,

    pray if I have found favor in your eyes,

    pray do not pass by your servant!

    Pray let a little water be fetched, then wash your feet and recline under the tree;

    let me fetch (you) a bit of bread, that you may refresh your hearts,

    then afterward you may pass on—

    for you have, after all, passed your servant’s way!”

Avraham, however well established in his herds and retainers, thinks himself well below the mark of these “lords,” whoever they may be, and is eager to demonstrate to them his surpassing hospitality. What he has in mind is considerably more than “a bit of bread.” Running to Sara and shouting “make haste!” he commands her to bake three cakes from their best semolina. Then he’s off to the oxen to choose a calf, “tender and fine,” for a servant to prepare. When the meal is ready, Avraham himself serves it with solicitude. While the potentates eat, they ask after his wife, whose name they somehow know:

“Where is Sara your wife?”

“Here in the tent,” replies Avraham with mounting suspicion.

The lord sitting in the middle of the three says:

“I will return, yes, return to you when time revives [that is, a year from now] and Sara your wife will have a son.”

Avraham knows now that he is entertaining God and two angels,4 but Sara, who knows nothing of the previous promises (why would a man share such things with a wife?), has overheard. Perhaps she is giddy from all her frantic baking, but she finds the conversation ludicrous and chuckles to herself, “After I have become worn, is there to be pleasure for me? And my lord is old!”

“Now why does Sara laugh?” asks the figure in the middle, who now reveals himself as the God for whom no feat is impossible, and repeats the promise. Poor Sara, full of fear and confusion, insists she did not laugh. “No,” says God, “indeed you laughed.” Sara, who has been left out of the great relationship between her husband and God, laughs the laugh of the ancient world, of Sumer, Egypt, and Canaan, of Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas, the rightly cynical laugh of all those who know that a woman cannot bear children past menopause and a man cannot get it up in advanced old age. For all the tall tales of heroes and kings, the world of human experience is as predictable as the zodiac that turns in the heavens. We all know the final inevitability, how things must end.

This episode blends effortlessly into the next. God debates within himself whether he will tell Avraham “what I am about to do” and decides to speak privately with Avraham because “I have known him”—while the two angels head for Sodom, where Lot lives. When God reveals his plan of destruction for Sodom and Gomorrah, Avraham attempts to reason with him: “Will you really sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” By questioning God, who has been gradually revealing his awesome grandeur to Avraham, the patriarch exhibits striking courage, a courage that will reappear in his descendants throughout the ages to come. A verbal tug-of-war ensues, ending with God’s promise to stay his hand if as few as ten innocents are found within the walls of these cities.

Fade-in: Sodom’s main square, where Lot, encountering the angels, invites them to stay at his house. (Though not as generous to his guests as Avraham, he’s undoubtedly a good guy.) But the men of the city surround the house like the ghouls in Night of the Living Dead and demand that Lot bring out the two handsome young men so they can, well, sodomize them. It becomes all too clear that there aren’t ten innocents here. There’s only Lot, who tries to buy time with a ploy that might not have occurred to most of us in his situation:

    Now pray, I have two daughters who have never known a man,

    pray let me bring them out to you, and you may deal with them however seems good in your eyes;

    only to these men do nothing,

    for they have, after all, come under the shadow of my roof beam!

Of course, the Sodomites aren’t interested and roar that they will bugger Lot, too, once they have broken down the door. But no one gets buggered; and the Sodomites get theirs—fire and brimstone from heaven—once Lot and his family are out of the way, save, unfortunately, for Lot’s wife, who looks back on the raining destruction, even though she has been told not to, and gets turned into a pillar of salt—another wifely pawn.

This unhappy episode, beloved of sexually repressed fundamentalists through the ages, may leave most of us with the same reaction Evelyn Waugh described one of his fellow officers as having. The young man, an empty-headed dilettante right out of the pages of Wodehouse, had never read anything, but during the longeurs between military engagements he decided to while away the hours by reading a book for the very first time, and the Bible was all that was available. Having read part of Genesis, he soon gave up the pursuit, exclaiming: “God, what a shit God is!”

It is only somewhat mollifying to realize that the sin of Sodom was not homosexuality but inhospitality. You can’t tell from this episode whether God is against buggery, but you can be sure he takes a dim view of raping perfectly nice strangers who come to visit. Also, we know from widespread Mesopotamian evidence that Sumerians and other ancient peoples of the Middle East preferred rear entry, both vaginal and anal, for their sexual encounters. To the descendants of Avraham, who viewed such posture as subhuman (“like a dog”), the whole sexual repertoire of their neighbors may have come to seem suspect—bestial and unnatural.

But now we go from the fire and brimstone to a real wonder:

    Sara became pregnant and bore Avraham a son in his old age,

    at the set-time of which God had spoken to him.

    And Avraham called the name of his son, who was born to him, whom Sara bore to him:

    Yitzhak (He Laughs) [Isaac in traditional English translation].

    And Avraham circumcised Yitzhak his son at eight days old, as God had commanded him.…

    Now Sara said:

    “God has made me laugh.”

God had made her laugh before—by suggesting the impossible. Now Sara the pawn is given the only thing she ever wanted, the very thing she knew she could not have. She wanted this child much more than Avraham did—however keen his desire had been—for he could have children by other women. It is one of the hallmarks of the handiwork of Avraham’s God that his purpose for one human being spills over into the lives of others, creating bliss even for the story’s supernumeraries. The conversation between these two (who have barely conversed before, at least in our presence) is rich and poignant, and the speech of her who has hardly spoken has a pathos such as we would expect only from a great writer of dialogue:

    “God has made me laugh,

    all who hear of it will laugh for me.…

    Who would have declared to Avraham:

    ‘Sara will nurse sons?’

    Well, I have borne him a son in his old age!”

God has made Avraham laugh, God has made Sara laugh, God makes Yitzhak laugh. And: “The child grew and was weaned, and Avraham made a great drinking-feast on the day that Yitzhak was weaned.” At this point, winter has been dispelled and everyone’s nightmares are over.

Not quite.

For one thing, Sara is determined that Hagar the Egyptian will not share in the laughter and drives out her and her son for good (though they remain under God’s protection). And then, in piercing staccato phrases, the narrator begins the Hebrew Bible’s most fearful and piteous story:

    Now after these events it was

    that God tested Avraham

    and said to him


    He said:

    “Here I am.”

    He said:

    “Pray take your son,

    your only-one,

    whom you love,


    and go-you-forth to the land of Moriyya (Seeing),

    and offer him up there as an offering-up

    upon one of the mountains

    that I will tell you of.”

    Avraham started-early in the morning,

    he saddled his donkey,

    he took his two serving-lads with him and Yitzhak his son,

    he split wood for the offering-up

    and arose and went to the place that God had told him of.

    On the third day Avraham lifted up his eyes

    and saw the place from afar.

    Avraham said to his lads:

    “You stay here with the donkey,

    and I and the lad will go yonder,

    we will bow down and then return to you.”

    Avraham took the wood for the offering-up,

    he placed them upon Yitzhak his son,

    in his hand he took the fire and the knife.

    Thus the two of them went together.

    Yitzhak said to Avraham his father, he said:


    He said:

    “Here I am, my son.”

    He said:

    “Here are the fire and the wood,

    but where is the lamb for the offering-up?”

    Avraham said:

    “God will see-for-himself to the lamb for the offering-up,

    my son.”

    Thus the two of them went together.

    They came to the place that God had told him of;

    there Avraham built the slaughter-site

    and arranged the wood

    and bound Yitzhak his son

    and placed him on the slaughter-site atop the wood.

    Avraham stretched out his hand,

    he took the knife to slay his son.

    But [God’s] messenger called to him from heaven

    and said:

    “Avraham! Avraham!”

    He said:

    “Here I am.”

    He said:

    “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad,

    do not do anything to him!

    For now I know

    that you are in awe of God—

    you have not withheld your son, your only-one, from me.”

    Avraham lifted up his eyes and saw:

    there, a ram caught in the thicket by its horns!

    Avraham went, he took the ram

    and offered it up as an offering-up in the place of his son.

    Avraham called the name of that place: [God] Sees.

    As the saying is today: On [God’s] mountain (it) is seen.

    Now [God’s] messenger called to Avraham a second time from heaven

    and said:

    “By myself I swear”

    —[God’s] utterance—

    “indeed, because you have done this thing, have not withheld your son, your only-one,

    indeed, I will bless you, bless you,

    I will make your seed many, yes, many,

    like the stars of the heavens and like the sand that is on the shore of the sea;

    your seed shall inherit the gate of their enemies,

    all the nations of the earth shall enjoy blessing through your seed,

    in consequence of your hearkening to my voice.”

I doubt anyone has ever read this story, either in the original or in any of its many translations, without being transfixed. Many who heard the story as children and know perfectly well how it will end (with tragedy averted at the very last minute) cannot bring themselves to look at it again or consider seriously “the monster god of the Old Testament,” as one woman called him with a shudder. And Fox’s plain translation, so close to the bald rhythm of the original Hebrew, is stunning in its cumulative effect, like repeated blows or wounds.

Is this God? What are we to make of such a God? Does the primitive period in which the story takes place somehow explain or excuse the torment that God inflicts on the man and the boy? Isn’t the boy, like Sara in the Egyptian story and Lot’s wife in the destruction of Sodom, just another pawn in God’s game?

Yitzhak is a pawn, surely, even though with swift strokes the narrator gives us a real child who asks a real question. As E. A. Spieser remarks, “The father’s answer is tender but evasive, and the boy must by now have sensed the truth. The short and simple sentence, ‘And the two of them walked on together’ [“Thus the two of them went together” in the Fox translation] covers what is perhaps the most poignant and eloquent silence in all literature.” Yes, the narrator’s skill is great, leaving the reader speechless at the impending horror.

Interpreters of an anthropological bent have tended to see this story as a symbolic renunciation, the dramatization of some unrecoverable moment in prehistory when the proto-Jews gave up the practice of human sacrifice that their neighbors continued to engage in. Thus it was enshrined in their tradition as a reminder of what they must not do. Christians see in Avraham a type of God, willing to give his “only son” Jesus as sacrifice for our sins. Without meaning to imply that these interpretations have no basis, I hasten to point out that both serve as frames, giving us categories to stuff this episode into: they are excuses to distance ourselves from the central brutality, so that we may eventually tuck it away out of sight. But we must stay with this thing: it is the climax of Avraham’s story—the Mountain Experience.

It is tempting to hate Avraham for what he does here. We have already seen him as a wily conniver, blithely willing to sacrifice his own wife to prosper himself. And though we can say to ourselves that the standards of the time were different from our own, it is so difficult to let it go at that—just as difficult as when we try to absolve Thomas Jefferson, prophet of human equality and slaveholder. Still, we must compare Avraham not to ourselves but to Gilgamesh and Hammurabi. When we do this, Avraham begins to stand out from his time in bold relief. However we may loathe Avraham’s attitude toward Sara, we cannot doubt that he loves Yitzhak. Indeed, the first time the Bible uses the word love is in this very episode:

    Pray take your son,

    your only-one,

    whom you love,

    Yitzhak …

It is precisely Avraham’s love that makes the episode so unbearable.

The key to this awesome puzzle must lie not in Avraham’s relationship to Yitzhak but in his relationship to God. Avraham was a man of Sumer. Initially, “the god” was for Avram little more than Lugalbanda’s statue was for Gilgamesh, almost a good luck charm—though from the first there is no statue, no visual manifestation. Even in the earliest stages, then, this relationship is different from the relationships of other Sumerians to their patronal gods. But if the relationship is to last, Avraham requires education; and this he receives in a series of manifestations in which “the god” gradually reveals himself as God—not just a divinity but the only God that counts. We can be certain that Avraham began, like all Sumerians, like all human beings before him (and virtually all after him), as a polytheist, a believer in many (and conflicting) gods and godlets—bad-tempered forces of nature and the cosmos who could be temporarily appeased by just the right rites and rigmarole. It is highly unlikely that Avraham became during the course of his life a strict monotheist, but what we can say is that Avraham’s relationship to God became the matrix of his life, the great shaping experience. From voice to vision to august potentate, Avraham’s understanding of God grew ever larger; but given the society out of which he came, this understanding remained—by our standards—a very earthbound one. Something must, after all these years of preparation, jolt him into a recognition of Just-Who-Is-Speaking-to-Him. For the God who calls Avraham to the Mountain Experience must no longer be seen merely as the “Mountain God.” He is the opposite of the Sumerian gods with their patently human motivations. He is the God beyond the mountain, even beyond the sky, the unknowable God, whose purposes are hidden from human intelligence, who cannot be manipulated.

And who are we? We are the contingent ones, dependent utterly on this God. And who is Avraham? He is the contingent one who must understand that he is utterly dependent, who must cling consciously to his God, who gives and takes beyond all understanding. For, as the sage Job will say in later times, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away: Blessed be the Name of the Lord!”

At the outset of this harrowing episode, the narrator, knowing that poor human readers could never bear the suspense, tells us that this will be a “test,” so we know that Yitzhak will not actually be sacrificed, however difficult it is to keep that in mind during the ensuing action. It is a test for us as well. Can we open ourselves to the God who cannot be understood, who is beyond all our amulets and scheming, the God who rains on picnics, the God who allows human beings to be inhuman, who has sentenced us all to death? All the other gods are figments, sorry projections of human desires. Only this God is worth my life (and yours and Yitzhak’s). For “there is no other.” Avraham must come to believe in a God as awesomely powerful—as Other—as the One whose terrifying presenceWilliam Blake, one of Avraham’s many inheritors, would one day attempt to invoke:

    Tiger, Tiger, burning bright

    In the forests of the night,

    What immortal hand or eye

    Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Avraham passes the test. His faith—his belief in God—is stronger than his fear. But now he knows he is dealing with the Unthinkable, beyond all expectation. The God who called him out into the wilderness and made impossible promises has begun to bring those promises to fulfillment. But this must not mean that, through this God, I can see the future and control what has not yet come to be. I control nothing. My task is to be as open to God as I am to my own child; to both I must say, “Here I am!”

“Be not afraid,” counsels God to Avraham. Be not afraid of his presence in your life. But, paradoxically, be afraid of God’s inexplicable omnipotence. For fear of this God, as the Psalmist will one day sing, “is the beginning of wisdom.” And this unnamed mountain in the land of Seeing is for Avraham the beginning of fear.

Following this resolution, Avraham’s story draws quickly to its close. Sara dies in Hebron and Avraham sets about “to lament for Sara and to weep over her.” We might interpret his mourning as merely formal, were it not for what happens next. To bury Sara with all the respect that is due her, Avraham buys his first property in Canaan, but only after waging a nerve-shattering negotiation. Avraham is determined to have “the cave of Makhpela” as Sara’s burial chamber. But “a sojourner,” even if he were a nomadic chieftain, could not easily buy property in ancient Canaan, and even if he were to convince some stubborn farmer to sell a part of his holdings, the transaction would still be illegal without the consent of the local board of selectmen—in this case the “Sons of Het.” The owner of the cave says, with feigned generosity, that since Avraham is so highly respected—“one exalted by God in our midst”—he wouldn’t dream of charging him, he can have “the choicest” site free of charge, even the cave of Makhpela, even though it is worth four hundred shekels. Avraham hears this and understands what is really being offered: a temporary burial site (with no assurances for the future) for free or a permanent burial site for an outrageous sum. Through all the subsequent bargaining (interminable, full of ritualistic bowing, scraping, and protestations of sincerity, as is still typical of the Middle East), he keeps offering four hundred shekels until it is accepted by all. The amount, probably ten times the cave’s actual value, is worth it to Avraham, for it gives him clear and irrevocable title to his wife’s final resting place. One feels Avraham would have paid anything for this peace; and thus does he show belatedly, pathetically, his reverence for the matriarch.

It is not long before Avraham joins Sara in the Hebron cave, still contentiously, sometimes tragically, sacred to Arabs and Jews, the grave of the progenitor of both Yishmael and Yitzhak and all their descendants. Avraham does not die before setting in motion an arranged marriage for Yitzhak, a colorless figure of whom we never hear much on his own account—but then think of the poor man’s childhood trauma! The stories that follow take us through the lives of the subsequent patriarchs—and matriarchs, since Rivka (or Rebecca), Yitzhak’s lively and opinionated wife (who’s also a terrific cook and a conniver worthy of her father-in-law), looms especially large in these stories. To Yitzhak, who “loved her” and whom she “comforted after his mother,” she bears twin boys, Esav and Yaakov (the traditional Esau and Jacob). When her sons are grown, she conspires with wily Yaakov, her favorite and second-born, to rob loyal Esav of his birthright, by having smooth-skinned Yaakov disguise himself as hairy Esav and present the now-blind Yitzhak with his favorite dish (which she has prepared). The confused old Yitzhak confers on Yaakov the blessing of the firstborn, so that Yaakov succeeds to the line of Avraham and the promises made to him. Despite the pain that this reversal causes Yitzhak, Rivka’s plan, as it turns out, is also God’s; and throughout Yaakov’s life God speaks to him at crucial junctures, not least in the unsettling episode in which a mysterious stranger appears at Yaakov’s encampment and wrestles with him all through the night, only to reveal himself in the morning as God and rename Yaakov Yisrael (or Israel), whose children will bear the Promise. Yaakov himself gives God a new name, calling him, for good reason, “the Terror of Yitzhak.”

Yaakov/Israel is not the last of the patriarchal figures, but he is the last one to whom God speaks, indeed so intimately that he wrestles: “For I have seen God,” exclaims Israel, “face to face—and my life has been saved.” To see the face of God and live: this will be for the Children of Israel in all their subsequent generations the unreachable acme of holiness. The first stage of the Promise has been fulfilled, and both Avraham and Israel have “walked with God.” The religious center is no longer what it had been for the Sumerians and all other ancient cultures—impersonal manipulation by means of ritual prescriptions—but a face-to-face friendship with God. The new religion has been given shape through three generations of nomadic men and women who have ceased to bow down before idols or kings or any earthly image. They have learned, with many fits and starts, to depend on God—and no one else—this inscrutable, terrifying wilderness God.

But no one could maintain such pitch of feeling forever. Now that their consciousness has been altered, there must be a return to the business of ordinary life. No one will walk with God again. No one will see his face or even hear his voice for hundreds of years.

1 “Avram” is the Abram of most English translations, who will eventually become “Avraham”—Abraham in most translations. I am using the brilliant new translation of Genesis made by Everett Fox, which is much closer to the Hebrew text, including its spelling, than are most translations. I normally employ the spelling of the translator I am quoting, though I sometimes revert to the traditional King James spelling in summary sections. The phrase “of the Chaldeans” in this passage is an anachronism, supplied by a scribe to situate Ur for readers of a later day when the Euphrates valley had come to be dominated by Chaldean Semites (who much later gave their name to the Chaldean Christian minority of Iraq). Many such anachronisms can be found in Genesis.

2 Most scholars find the biblical references to domesticated camels in the time of Avram to be anachronistic because there is no extra-biblical evidence that camels were used regularly as beasts of burden till about 1000 B.C.; for other scholars the lack of extra-biblical evidence is inconclusive.

3 In the Gilgamesh material, brackets indicated missing or damaged portions of the text. Here they are simply my own interpolations. Parentheses indicate the translator’s attempt to make the implicit explicit. Hyphens between words indicate that the Hebrew is more concise, usually one word.

4 At this early period, angels, another borrowing from the Sumerians, are seen as manifestations of God, often hardly distinguishable from him. This scene of the three heavenly visitors breaking bread before Avraham’s tent is the subject of Andrei Rublev’s painting, the greatest of all Russian icons.

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