The history of Abraham

Copyright 2006 by Zeeshan Hasan. First published in Bangladesh on January 10, 2006 in The Daily Star.

The figure of Abraham is equally revered in Judeo-Christian and Muslim traditions as the common ancestor of the major monotheist faiths. However, modern Biblical scholarship has raised questions about the sources of the sacrifice of Abraham's son. In particular, some modern scholars believe that in one of the original versions of the Biblical story, Abraham may really have sacrificed his son. This is in agreement with other texts asserting the practice of child sacrifice in early Israel. However, later Israelite religion seemingly abandoned the practice of child sacrifice, and this change resulted in the sacrifice story that we are now familiar with. Thus the Qur'anic sacrifice story is the product of a mythological evolution which occurred during the compilation of the Biblical book of Genesis, which contains the sources of the oldest Abraham tales. Furthermore, two other important Qur'anic stories of Abraham, namely that of his arrival at monotheism through star-gazing and that of his divine rescue from being burned alive, may be seen to be the results of a similar mythological evolution which occured in later Biblical times (in particular in the Book of Jubilees' retelling of the Abraham story). The history of the Abraham stories will be seen to have important implications for Qur'anic narrative and view of history.

The story of Abraham's sacrifice as it appears in the Qur'an is known to all Muslims; it is commemorated every year by the animal sacrifices of Eid ul-Azha. The Qur'anic story is given below:

So We gave him (Abraham) tidings of a gentle son. And when he was old enough to walk with him, he said, O my dear son, I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you. So look, what do you think? He said, Oh my father! Do that which you are commanded. God willing, you will find me of the steadfast. Then, when they had both surrendered and he had flung him down upon his face, We called unto him, O Abraham! You have already fulfilled the vision... Then We ransomed him with a tremendous victim. (Qur'an 37:101-107)
Now, let us look at the Biblical sacrifice story. The consensus of modern Biblical scholarship is that the sacrifice story in the Hebrew Bible is composed from a number of different sources. One is the E source (so called because it refers to God by the name Elohim, usually translated simply as "God"), which is given below.

And it was after all these things, and God tested Abraham. And He said to him, 'Abraham'. And he said, 'I'm here�. And He said, 'Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah and make him a burnt offering there on one of the mountains that I'll say to you.' And Abraham got up early in the morning and harnessed his ass and took his two young men with him and Isaac, his son. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and he got up and went to the place that God had said to him. On the third day: and Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance. And Abraham said to his young men, 'Sit here with the ass; and I and the boy: we'll go over there, and we'll bow, and we'll come back to you.' And Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on Isaac, his son, and took the fire and the knife in his hand. And the two of them went together. And Isaac said to Abraham, his father; and he said, 'My father.' And he said, 'I'm here, my son.' And he said, 'Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?' And Abraham said, 'God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering, my son.' And the two of them went together. And they came to the place that God had said to him. And Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and he bound Isaac, his son, and put him on the altar on top of the wood. And Abraham put out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. (E, from Genesis 22:1-10)
At this point the Biblical text changes from E to a different source, usually called R or RJE (for Redactor, the source which edits together the E and J sources). It is only at the end of the story that the Biblical text switches back to the E source, which continues as follows:

And He said, 'I swear by me '... that because you did this thing and didn't withhold your son, your only one, that I'll bless you and multiply your seed like the stars of the skies and like the sand that's on the seashore, and your seed will possess its enemies' gate. And all the nations of the earth will be blessed through your seed because you listened to my voice.' And Abraham went back to his young men, and they got up and went together to Beersheba, and Abraham lived in Beersheba.(E, from Genesis 22:15-19)
The above E story is quite remarkable; it seems that in the E version of this story, Abraham really did sacrifice his son. The evidence that Abraham's son was killed is outlined in Richard Elliott Friedman's book, The Bible With Sources Revealed (HarperCollins 2003). Firstly, the whole replacement of Abraham's son by an alternative sacrificial animal is absent from E; It only happens in RJE. Secondly, God says that Abraham "didn't withhold" his son, implying that Isaac was actually killed (in the absence of a ram-replacement narrative). Thirdly, E says that Abraham "went back to his young men"; a phrase which excludes Isaac, who is always mentioned separately. But at the end of the above E narrative there is no mention of Isaac, even though Abraham had said both of them would return ('we'll come back to you'). The image of Abraham going back to his young men (presumably servants or slaves) without Isaac is reinforced by the omission of the previously-used phrase "And the two of them went together"; this explicitly includes both Abraham and his son, but it is missing from the end of the story. Finally, after this story Isaac never appears in the E source again, and in fact God's final words to Abraham in the E passage above seems to establish that Abraham's "seed" was "multiplied" through new children explicitly to replace the loss of Isaac. Abraham's central place in the Bible, as the ancestor of the Israelite nation, is thus seemingly bound up in the offering of Isaac as a child sacrifice.

The above conclusions regarding the original E story are surprising to say the least. However, many modern scholars are inclined to accept the picture it paints of child sacrifice as it agrees with practices mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, for example in the following:

Ahaz... reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord, as his ancestor David had done, but he... made offerings in the valley of the son of Hinnom, and made his sons pass through fire, according to the abominable practices... (2 Chronicles 28:1-3)
The above passage shows that the narrator of the book of Chronicles probably dates from a later period in Israelite history, by which time child sacrifice has been abandoned as an "abominable practice". A similar later-dated, anti-child sacrifice view may well have been the motivation of the insertion of the following text from the RJE source into midst of the E passages quoted above:

And an angel of Yahweh called to him from the skies and said, 'Abraham! Abraham!' And he said, 'I'm here.' And he said, 'Don't put your hand out toward the boy, and don't do anything to him, because now I know that you fear God, and you didn't withhold your son, your only one, from me.' And Abraham raised his eyes and saw, and here was a ram behind, caught in the thicket by its horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and made it a burnt offering instead of his son. (RJE, from Genesis 22:11-14)
The insertion of this RJE text, notably different from the E source in its use of the divine name Yahweh (sometimes translated as "Jehovah"; hence naming the "J" source which was used to produce RJE). This small insertion manages to produce the familiar story, in which Abraham's son is not killed but spared by the mercy of God.

In fact, there is another Biblical account of Yahweh which is relevant to the discussion of child sacrifice. This is the story of Yahweh's seemingly bizarre and inexplicable attempt to kill Moses, which results in the circumcision of Moses' son.

Moses took his wife and sons, saddled the donkeys, and returned to the land of Egypt. On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the Lord met him and tried to kill him. But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched Moses' feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then she said, “A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.” (Exodus 4:24-26)

This story apparently functioned as an origin myth for circumcision, since Moses' wife Zipporah saves her husband from Yahweh's inexplicable violence by circumcising their son. The whole incident, especially Zipporah's magical incantation-like “bridegroom of blood” utterance which seemingly wards off the attacking deity, seem very strange from a modern perspective. However, it may help to bear in mind that in the Biblical world, blood had great significance as it was used in ritual sacrifices for atonement of sin. This is even forms the basis for the prohibition of eating blood in Biblical law:

I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut that person off from the people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement. (Leviticus 17:10,11)
Atonement of sin and blood sacrifice was common in the ancient world as a means of forgiveness of sin, as well as a consequent warding off the wrath of the gods that one would otherwise be subject to. The Moses story seems to be pointing to circumcision as some kind of blood sacrifice, which protects Moses from the wrath of Yahweh. But the question remains, how would Moses' wife have thought to do such a thing? The answer is that it only makes sense in a cultural and religious context where the sacrifice of one's child (or of their foreskin and the consequent blood of circumcision) is commonly held to be an acceptable means of gaining divine favour and averting divine wrath. The Abraham sacrifice story seems to have a similar cultural context.

The evolution of religious ideas taking place over the history of the Abraham story are noteworthy. During this evolution, the idea of child sacrifice was abandoned. This is in itself an important development, but it is more remarkable for the new ideas that it then allowed. The first was a more compassionate conception of God, which no longer required believers to commit barbaric acts of child sacrifice. The second was just as important; in asserting that children (and by extension other innocent people) could not be killed for God's sake, monotheist religion could begin to develop humanist concepts regarding the value and sacredness of human life. While these may seem trivial from a modern perspective, a little thought will show how close we still are to the religious ideas of E's Abraham story. Radical groups producing brainwashed suicide bombers from adolescents are not far away from the old practice of child sacrifice. Nor are those encouraging attacks on Ahmedis, Hindus or other minorities paying much attention to the humanist aspects of monotheist religions.

The evolution of the story of Abraham's son leaves us with further questions regarding the other elements of the Qur'anic story. We have already seen that the evolution of the sacrifice story seems to have occurred withing Biblical times, with the old human-sacrifice encumbered E account being replaced by the now familiar RJE story. But there are other important elements of the Abraham story in the Qur'an; one is of his arrival at monotheism through rejection of the heavenly bodies as deities:

(Remember) when Abraham said unto his father Azar: Takest thou idols for gods? Lo! I see thee and thy folk in error manifest.Thus did We show Abraham the kingdom of the heavens and the earth that he might be of those possessing certainty: When the night grew dark upon him he beheld a star. He said: This is my Lord. But when it set, he said: I love not things that set. And when he saw the moon uprising, he exclaimed: This is my Lord. But when it set, he said: Unless my Lord guide me, I surely shall become one of the folk who are astray. And when he saw the sun uprising, he cried: This is my Lord! This is greater! And when it set he exclaimed: O my people! Lo! I am free from all that ye associate (with Him). Lo! I have turned my face toward Him Who created the heavens and the earth, as one by nature upright, and I am not of the idolaters. (Qur'an 6:74-79)
And yet another important Qur'anic story of Abraham is that of his divine rescue from being burned alive:

He said: Worship ye then instead of Allah that which cannot profit you at all, nor harm you? Fie on you and all that ye worship instead of Allah! Have ye then no sense? They cried: Burn him and stand by your gods, if ye will be doing. We said: O fire, be coolness and peace for Abraham, And they wished to set a snare for him, but We made them the greater losers. And We rescued him and Lot (and brought them) to the land which We have blessed for (all) peoples. (Qur'an 21: 66-71)
Interestingly, neither of these stories occur in the oldest stories of Abraham in the Biblical book of Genesis. So unlike the sacrifice story, which evolves during Biblical times, these other stories of Abraham seem to have evolved in later Biblical times. These developments are laid out in The Bible As It Was, by James L. Kugel (Harvard University Press, 1997). The Biblical book of Genesis (which contains all the E, J and RJE texts regarding Abraham) contains only a handful of relevant verses, to which modern scholarship traces the origin of both these stories:

I am the Lord who took you out of Ur of the Chaldeans (Gen. 15:7)

Your descendants shall be as numerous as the stars of heaven (Gen. 22:17)

The story of Abraham's star-gazing involves both of these. The association of heavenly bodies with the second is obvious; it is easy to form a picture of Abraham looking at the "stars of heaven" as God spoke to him. But there is also an important connection with the first verse, that Kugel points out: "So great was the association between Chaldea and the study of the stars that the very word 'Chaldean' came to mean 'astronomer' in both Aramaic and Greek" (Kugel, page139). So the first verse, whose original intention was probably just to establish Abraham's origins in the ancient and powerful Chaldean empire, took on a new meaning; Abraham become an astronomer. This development can be seen in the elaboration of Abraham's early life in the much later Biblical book of Jubilees, given below.

Abram sat up during the night on the first of the seventh month, so that he might observe the stars from evening until daybreak so that he might see what the nature of the year would be with respect to the rain. And he was sitting alone making observations [of the stars] and a voice came into his heart saying, "All the signs of the stars and the signs of the sun and the moon are all under the Lord's control. Why am I seeking [them out]? if He wishes, He will make it rain morning and evening, and if He desires He will not make it fall, for everything is under His control." (Jubilees 12:16-18)

From the book of Jubilees is obviously very close to the Qur'anic story of Abraham's arrival at monotheism. Just as with the sacrifice story, the changes in the star-gazing story probably reflect historical changes in Israelite religion; the writer of Jubilees is retelling the story with an emphasis on the monotheism of Abraham which was missing from the original. The emphasis on monotheism is of course preserved in the Qur'anic account.

But the Qur'anic story of Abraham's rescue from a fire remains a mystery. Again, it is the later Biblical book of Jubilees that provides us with a clue to its origins. Here, Abraham's father says that his life is in danger if he does not serve the idols of his people:

And his father said to him, "I also know that, my son, but what shall I do to the people who have ordered me to serve before them [the idols]. If I speak to them truthfully, they will kill me because they themselves are attached to them so that they might worship them and praise them." (Jubilees 12:6-7)
This new feature of the story established that Abraham's society might murder anyone in its midst who rejected polytheist idolatry. From here, it was a linguistic coincidence that allowed the later development of the story that he had been saved from a fire. Genesis 15:7, quoted earlier, mentioned that Abraham came from the Mesopotamian city of Ur. But as Kugel mentions, the word 'ur in Hebrew was not only a place name, but also had an alternative meaning of 'fire'. In this alternative reading, God's words to Abraham in Genesis 15:7 becomes: "I am the Lord who took you out of a fire of the Chaldeans". This, along with another verse in the book of Isaiah:

Therefore, thus says the Lord, who redeemed Abraham... (Isaiah 29:22)
Isaiah's statement that God had "redeemed" or rescued Abraham, could ultimately be assembled with the new understanding of Ur in Genesis 15:7 into a story similar to that of the Qur'an. As in the change in the star-gazing story, the tale of the fire emphasizes Israelite monotheism, as God is obviously more powerful than the power of the polytheists and idolaters.

So the story of Abraham proves to be enlightening in a number of ways. Firstly, comparison of earlier Biblical versions of the sacrifice of Isaac shows that the story has changed over time in accordance with the evolution of an Israelite religion that abandoned child sacrifice in favour of more humanist practices. Secondly, comparison of the Qur'anic stories of Abraham arriving at monotheism through astronomy, as well as his divine rescue from fire, reflect an increasing emphasis on monotheism. Both these historical changes in Israelite religion are thus reflected in the Qur'anic stories of Abraham, which should then be viewed as the end-result of a long evolutionary process. In this perspective, it would be a mistake to view the Biblical and even Qur'anic stories of Abraham as history; rather these seem to be mythological stories, which continued to develop as Israelite religion developed. The Qur'an retained them in their later forms, as these ultimately agree with Islam's humanist and monotheist view of God.

But the fact that the Abraham stories have undergone so much development, first during the compilation of the Biblical book of Genesis and later in the Book of Jubilees, means that it obviously cannot be viewed as history. The events that occurred in history do not change; either Abraham sacrificed his son or he did not; either he was an astronomer or he was not; either he was almost burned alive or was not. But mythological stories do evolve, and as we have seen the Abraham stories evolve substantially. Thus the Biblical and Qur'anic stories of Abraham should thus be regarded as mythological and not historical. This conclusion is equally uncomfortable for all denominations of fundamentalists. On one hand, Muslim conservatives assert that all the Qur'anic narratives are historically accurate, which is not supported by the above historical analysis. On the other hand, Jewish and Christian opponents of Islam have frequently accused the Qur'an of being plagiarized from the Biblical stories, which they regard as true and historical in the same way that Muslims view the Qur'an; however, this ignores the view of modern scholarship that even the oldest stories of Abraham in the Book of Genesis are the result of an editorial process.

One basic question remains to be asked; how are we to view a Biblical tradition such as E which seems to have held that Abraham committed child sacrifice? Our own distance of millennia from religious practices of child sacrifice make such a narrative seem terribly alien and frightening to us. Yet, the most likely reason for a Biblical source text like E to preserve a tradition of child sacrifice by the ancestor of the Israelites is simply that the Biblical editors had a clear recognition of how close they still were to the practice of child sacrifice. Every battle and war between the Israelites and their enemies described in the Bible invariably meant the death of many young Israelite men. Then as now, war means bloodshed. The Israelites may have seen the situation with more honesty than we moderns are capable of; in the end, how different is it to sacrifice a young life to a religious deity as opposed to a secular ideal like nationalist war? Raising this question may make us supposed moderns realise that we are not as far away from the abhorrent practice of child sacrifice as we had hoped; and we may have more to learn from a story of Abrahamic child sacrifice than we like to admit.