There’s a belief – that you are supposed to take on faith – that all of the books of the Hebrew Bible, and even the Oral Torah (the commentaries on the Hebrew Bible written later by the rabbis, called the Mishnah and the Gemara) were given by God at Mount Sinai, along with the Ten Commandments. According to Jewish dogma, in fact, the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were all written by Moses (and inspired by God) in about 1300 BCE. Unfortunately, it’s more likely that these stories were written and collected during the Babylonian exile, after the destruction of the first temple in 586 BCE, and a long time after the events described would have taken place.
My Rabbi likes to say that the early stories in Genesis, pre-Abraham, are meant to be like Rudyard Kipling’s Just-so-stories, fables really, to explain the origins of things in our world. Why is childbirth painful? Why do we wear clothes? Why do we speak so many languages? Why are we scattered across the earth? And the answers were often adapted from what surrounding cultures had come up with to answer those same questions.
There’s a well-founded theory, new to me but not new to biblical scholars, that everything before the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the central story of the Hebrew Bible, was written to make that Exodus more meaningful, and to explain why the Israelite tribes were able to escape slavery and enter freedom in the land of Israel. Others say that even the Exodus story itself is a fiction, created by a mixed group of tribes living in the land of Israel centuries later, to create a cohesive story of how they became a nation.
This idea makes me feel seasick, as if the ground under my feet has been pulled away, but in another way it’s freeing. It allows me to see my ancestors, and these stories, as less concrete and more open to interpretation. There are reasons why every culture writes its own history, creating its own heroes and villains. Even the American story, so much more recent in history and therefore much easier to fact check, is full of exaggeration and idealization and interpretation meant to bolster certain values. This is what people do: we tell stories about our lives and our families. Some of these stories are even true, but many of them are meant to be symbolically true and to be emblematic of the life lessons we want to teach our children, rather than sticking strictly to the facts.
And in the ancient world, history and chronology and literature were treated very differently than the way we treat them today. The idea that we fact check our stories at all would have seemed strange to them, and the idea that the science of a story would have to be correct would just seem silly. They didn’t care if the splitting of the Sea of Reeds was possible, just that it felt true to them.
Despite my endless questioning of the biblical authors, I always took it on faith that Abraham (and Isaac and Jacob) were real people. I assumed that the authors of the Hebrew Bible were mythologizing and interpreting every which way, in order to make these patriarchs seem more important and to make them stand for more than just individual people doing idiosyncratic things, but I assumed that at least some of the stories were based in fact. It never even occurred to me to wonder if Abraham himself was a fictional character, created by later generations, to validate cornerstones of the Israelite faith. Part of me even accepted that the mythological characters of Adam and Eve, and even Noah, were historical in some way. My questions, when I had them, were more often about the way the biblical authors interpreted events, editorializing and exaggerating to particular ends, rather than whether or not the events themselves had ever taken place.
But, if the stories of the Hebrew Bible are fiction, why do the patriarchs, and especially Abraham, matter – so much so that three world religions see Abraham as their forefather?
The name Abraham basically translates as Big Daddy, or father of multitudes. And yet, Abraham is a mess as a husband and a father, which makes him an interesting choice for patriarch. He’s certainly not a good role model, except, maybe, in his faith in God.
So what is the point of this Abraham character? And why has he resonated with so many people for so long? We can ask that question whether we believe that God wrote the Hebrew Bible or that many different authors wrote it for their own different purposes, actually. Why has Abraham lived up to his title as the father of multitudes, inspiring so many people to believe in monotheism and this Yahweh version of God?
The Hebrew Bible doesn’t present us with a paragon of goodness who is born knowing how to do everything right – no, Abraham is flawed, and makes terrible mistakes, even life threatening mistakes, in his misreading of what God wants from him.
And God is with him every step of the way, not always cheering on his actions but trying to guide him and be with him as he makes his mistakes. Maybe his imperfection is what allows us to relate to him, and go on this journey with him, and believe that, maybe, we can have our own, similar, relationship to God.
This is a God who will stick with you when you struggle, and continue to spur you on to be better, and give you second and third chances to learn. Isn’t that what we all want, really, to be supported along the way and not required to be perfect from the start, or even at the end, in order to earn that support?
So, does it matter if these characters really existed thousands of years ago? Maybe it’s even more powerful to think that our ancestors were able to imagine these characters and their stories, and create this vision of God. I’m a fiction writer after all; I believe in the power of a good story, whether it’s factually true or not.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?