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Abraham the Father of Multitudes

            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.

“Just so you know: dogs don’t wear clothes, and we all speak Woof.”

            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.

“I never let facts get in my way.”

            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.

            He learns.

            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.

“I’m imperfect too, and you love me anyway.”

            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.

“Tell us another story, Mommy.”

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?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

44 responses »

  1. Great piece, Rachel. Profound and important conversation. Thank you for sharing these thoughts!

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  2. Rachel, I love this post. You are fortunate to know such a wise and open rabbi, and we, your readers, are fortunate that you share your own learning, thought processes, understanding, and wisdom with us. So well expressed. Thank you.

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  3. Hmm. History. I love it, but is there a grain of truth to it? Tenuous at best perhaps. Dee-oh-gee (Ellie?) is particularly insightful here.

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  4. I agree completely—’I believe in the power of a good story, whether it’s factually true or not.’

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  5. I think those Old Testament stories have a grain of truth to them, but the main thing is that they are a history and we know history is always told through the eyes of the writer and so we get his or her interpretation of it. There are many valuable stories in the Bible that could be used for teaching, but we also should remember that some of them reflect the beliefs of those times and we can’t be too rigid about following them. For example, I don’t believe in stoning people anymore. But basically, most of it shows us how to be good people and live good lives.

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  6. This is fascinating. Since returning to my faith during the pandemic, I’ve become more convinced of the authority of scripture and its inspiration by God, useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, and giving correction in righteous living. This conviction makes me feel more free to worship God.
    It’s interesting how everyone thinks through these things.

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  7. I’ve watched documentaries on the bible where scientists and researchers set out to prove if something in the bible could have happened or not and they are extremely fascinating. And they show you exactly how it is totally possible that these weren’t just fables but could have happened exactly as they are told. They explained how the parting of the water occurred, how the North Star appeared, how the seven plagues really happened, and why only the firstborn son was affected. They didn’t say they did or didn’t happen but gave valid scientific explanations as to how they definitely could have happened.
    When I crack open an egg and look at the runny yolk and think about how if I just didn’t crack it open, (and left it under the chicken for warmth), that liquid, with nothing else added or done to it, just turns into a walking, chirping, breathing animal with fur and a beating heart and brain, I don’t doubt that anything is possible. It boggles my mind.

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  8. Fascinating Rachel, I always enjoy your posts because they’re informative and thought-provoking.

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  9. At the very least, the ancient, holy stories reveal something basic about the culture and ideals of olden times peoples.

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  10. I couldn’t agree with you more. You have the makings of a great theologian.

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  11. I enjoyed reading your post and your summation as to what the true importance of the Abraham story. Reading your post, reminds me why I oppose a strict interpretation of scripture.

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  12. You touched on the core of why some folks refuse to believe, a little or at all. They can’t wrap their heads around the idea that some things are taken on faith, and the ‘fact’ that they can’t be factually verified is secondary to the LESSON. I’ve always known that God exists. Not because I was raised in a religious community, in a religious state etc etc, He is in my heart. There is a profound knowledge that He is watching over me and cares about my life. The people in the Bible (and in our Book of Mormon) might be fictional or they may be actual, real live people who lived and walked the earth long before our time here. Who cares about the semantics of the idea? It comes down to faith in my opinion and that at least is still something we’re each allowed to have, where nobody judges on the quantity a person might have. Great post and very educational. Thank you! 🙂

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  13. Thoughtful and thought provoking. Thank you!

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  14. I think the term ‘creative non-fiction’ fits this grey area of religious history. And most history. Like the game of ‘telephone’, facts get lost as they are handed from one generation – or even one year – to another. Was Jesus a real person? Was Moses? More likely their legacies were built on the composites of real people, conflated with legend, memory, wishful thinking, and agendas.

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  15. Because of the centuries of time since the first “discoveries” of ancient biblical texts, I often question both the translations (the possible diverse meanings of words/phrases) and the editing of these scriptures (Did the “editors” slightly twist events to suit the times and the powers in control of the populace.) I would hope that any erroneous inclusions would be minor as to not affect the basic beliefs of the various religious denominations.
    Art

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  16. “This idea makes me feel seasick, as if the ground under my feet has been pulled away, but in another way it’s freeing. ” I feel exactly the same way when I consider this, as I often do. Again, well written and thought-provoking. Thanks, Rachel.

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  17. Wonderful post! Love this reflection about Abraham and agree that thinking the stories were made up can shift “the sand” under our beliefs. As you discussed I also don’t think that it matters in the big picture. The point is way beyond those questions and for me doesn’t change anything.

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  18. I picture all the old dudes in the Hebrew Bible as looking like Charlton Heston, Russell Crowe, Richard Burton, and Anthony Quinn. I don’t think any of them was Hebrew so that may be a problem. Oh, and Delilah was hawt! Love me my Book of Judges.

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  19. There are those of us who believe the Bible (Old and New Testaments by whatever name) is the revealed word of God — whenever (and to whomever) handed down. That the message has remained consistent across time and authorship is, itself, a miracle. ❤

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  20. Interesting take. I still believe that all of the Old Testament people were real human beings, but I see what you are saying. I certainly feel that God is at my side, cheering me on during these very hard times.

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  21. I just finished “Yeshiva Girl” and loved it! It’s beautifully written. 📖❤

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  22. I come from Protestant Calvinist background, and much of what you say about Jewish thought can be said about my tradition, not surprising given that we share some “holy books” ie, basic data. I was happy to read this.

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  23. I agree with you about imagination – I’m a fiction writer also. However, I also believe the Bible – every word, every sentence, every page – from cover to cover. Thank you for your blog. It is always fascinating.

    Reply

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