Abraham and Sarah, Love Biblical Style.
Next up, Abraham , the great patriarch of three of the world’s largest religions. Most of humanity places him at the very root of their theology, and he is the most interesting person the Bible has yet offered, likely because he is the most detailed. Where Noah was constrained to only two major stories, Abraham covers most of eleven plus pages in my Bible. He also may be the most sympathetic character thus far, the one recognizable as a real human. He has virtues and vices. He’s generous and selfish, kind and cruel. His story is a mythical soap opera offering sex, violence, action and drama. It’s kind of a “Desperate Patriarchs ” for the ancient set. But it’s a human life, and an interesting life. But a good life? Well…
I have read the account of Abraham six times now. There is much there, but I feel it would be counter-productive, not to mention dull, to cover every event. We will stick to the interesting and pertinent parts. The travels here and there, the numerous altars built, places named etc., are irrelevant in our battle against biblical literalism. As a note Abraham and Sarah’s original names were Abram and Sarai. I will refer to them by there more common, post circumcision names to avoid unnecessary confusion. Yahweh knows, there will be enough confusion anyway.
Throughout this section, God makes numerous covenants with Abraham. They are given with numbing and repetitious detail, over and over. The only truly interesting part in this is the question of why Abraham is actually the one chosen. It’s not that he was perfect, far from it. As we will discuss, he commits sins aplenty, and he has a meanness about him. Apparently, God just liked him, a lot. In fact, God likes him considerably more than he likes anyone else. If I for a moment crawl out of our literalist tent and view God as the typical flawed being, I can actually understand this. I mean, I have great friends who are jackasses and I’m pretty sure I fulfill the same role for others. I guess sometimes you just like some people better. So Abraham is told numerous times that he is the chosen one and destined to become the patriarch of a vast people, and to given vast stretches of land. Truly this happens far to often for my liking. Seems like every time Abraham squats down to shit, Yahweh is telling him his descendants will be like “the dust on the ground”. Jesus Christ on a popsickle stick! Shut up about that already and pass the toilet paper!
Slipping back into literalist divine perfection, I’m puzzled that a perfectly just being could select one person from his whole “flock” and pour such generosity upon them to the exclusion of the others. Why is this one person God created better than the others? Didn’t God create them all? Was he more “Righteous” in the sense that Noah was? As before, the definition of righteousness is a bit skewed from what we think. Righteousness simply means doing what God tells you to. It does not have much in common with “good.” There are righteous people all through this book who are bastards… As there are in the world today. If anyone out there can explain why this should be so, I’d like to here from them.
Abraham and Sarah’s relationship is loose by todays standards, an “open” marriage, so to speak. Twice during travels Abraham begs Sarah to tell everyone they meet that she is his sister not his wife. His stated reason is that he is afraid they will find her beautiful and kill him to take her. The first time is in Egypt. Sure enough, the men of that country find Sarah very beautiful. Word rises to the Pharaoh, and he sees that she is truly one hot babe and takes her for a wife. What does Abraham do? Nothing! You see, the Pharaoh rewards him mightily because he still thinks that Abraham is her brother. I quote “On her account it went very well with Abram, and he received flocks and herds, male and female slaves, male and female asses, and camels.” It appears that the Pharaoh had paid Abraham a sort of bride price for his “sister”, still not understanding that she and Abraham were man and wife. Abraham just sat back and took all the wealth while the Pharaoh banged his wife??? What a douchebag!
Something is wrong here. Mischief has been done, but ask yourself who actually sinned? Who should the great Lord of Justice punish? Let’s look at the evidence. Abraham told Sarah to lie for his sake. Secondly, he then allowed the Pharaoh to take her as wife without out trying to set the record straight. Third, he benefitted greatly from his lies with the gifts from the Egyptian, becoming quite rich. Next, we look at Sarah. She, although instructed by her husband, still told the lie and allowed the Pharaoh to take her as wife. Not as much at fault as Abraham, but she still has some guilt here. Now the Pharaoh, on the pother hand, paid what was likely a fair bride price for a woman he was told was unattached. His guilt = 0. This may be the only story I know where the Pharaoh’s actually innocent.
The levels of guilt in this example seem pretty plain to me, but who do you think Yahweh punished? The Pharaoh, of course. God isn’t about to strike down his home boy or said boys’ babe, but dammit, someone has to be punished. So Yahweh strikes the Pharaoh with “severe plagues”. Why? I sure as hell don’t know! By a bizarre combination of sacrifices and altar construction, Abraham seems to have hacked into God’s justice system. The innocent party suffers while the ones who screwed up are rewarded. I’ll be a son of a bitch if it isn’t almost like real life.
When the Pharaoh finds out why the curses are aimed at him, Abraham gets to leave unmolested with Sarah and all his newly acquired property. I most certainly wouldn’t call this justice. Strangely, this story is repeated in greater detail much later, but this time in the land of Gerar with the king Abimelech. Abraham tricks two kings into taking his wife as their own. This time, however, it is made clear that Sarah was not “used”, but still the king is cursed and that curse is not lifted until Sarah is returned with many gifts, of course. ”God had tightly closed every womb in Abimelech’s household on account of Abraham’s wife Sarah.” Well…It’s not justice, but you must admit, it is a cool sounding curse. In addition, there are so many ways to read that. Did he close the wombs as in no babies, or did he CLOSE THE WOMB as in no sex? At any rate, the Pharaoh relented, and off goes Abraham a thousand Gerarian shekels richer than before. What a couple of con artists these two are!
But… Sarah is infertile. Now, I don’t know why God would make his right-hand-man’s wife barren. Maybe, he had a different plan. Perhaps, he’s a bit peeved at Abraham’s handing her over to anyone he can put the squeeze on. Maybe she caught some kind of archaic venereal disease. No matter the reason, she cannot bear children. Frustrated, she gives her maid Hagar to Abraham so there will be some children for her to raise. I love this typical male response. ” Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.” Yeah, I’ll just bet he did. Hubba, Hubba, Hubba. But, when Hagar gets pregnant, she starts acting above her station, treating the barren Sarah with disdain. Sarah, annoyed at this treatment, goes to Abraham and complains, blaming him for the trouble. He responds “Your maid is in your power. Do what you please.” So Sarah does. Ouch! Poor Hagar is so abused she runs away. Seems a fairly cruel of both Abraham and Sarah, but so very human. Sex screws everything up.
Hagar only returns when the Lord’s messenger tells her to “Go back to your mistress and submit to her abusive treatment.” Does he promise to intercede for her? Does he offer to protect her?. Nope, just get back there and get the hell beat out of you. He does however promise her that her descendants will also be numerous. That’s it. Nothing more. Though, it must have been worth it, because she did return.
In all this “giving” her to Abraham, I have to wonder if Hagar was a slave? Some Biblical versions say yes, others use the word servant. But did she really have a choice? I just don’t know, but it doesn’t seem likely. Whoever believes that morality is an absolute, needs to explain why Biblical morality sounds so much nastier than that which we follow today. Especially when we see what is eventually done to Hagar and her son Ishmael. These are not acts of kindness.
Sarah eventually gives birth and is ecstatic… right until the point she sees her son, Isaac playing with Hagar’s boy, Ishmael. This pisses her off something fierce and she demands of Abraham, “Drive out that slave and her son! No son of that slave is going to share the inheritance with my son Isaac!” Abraham is distressed but is reassured by Yahweh to do what Sarah asks because, get this, it’s through Isaac that Abraham will get many descendants. Because he has another son it’s OK for him to abandon this one. He is also told ,”As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a great nation of him also, since he too is your offspring.” So the next morning with a little water and bread, Abraham sends her into the wilderness.
Cruelty, plain and simple. Even if you know they’d be fine, it is a vicious act. Poor Hagar, she is shoved into Abraham’s bed, gets pregnant, acts a little proud, gets beaten, and eventually driven into the wilderness. Again, an example of God preselecting the blessed and no matter what they do they retain those blessings, while the innocents bleed. Justice is not served. The weak are not helped. (And don’t give me that crap about Yahweh helping Hagar in the wilderness. He’s the one who told Abraham to banish her there. On any scale you want to use that will not approach breaking even.)
Sarah, selfish and human, dies. The entire 23rd chapter of Genesis deals with Abraham’s Purchase of a burial plot. I’m not kidding.
What to really think about Abraham? One one hand he does the nastiness I just listed, but on the other, he gives Lot, his nephew vast amounts of land to graze his cattle. When Lot is captured Abraham takes every man he has and rescues him. Finally, when Sodom and Gomorrah are to be destroyed, Abraham tries to intercede with Yahweh, though unsuccessfully.
Neither he nor Sarah are all that terrible by their own standards, but by ours, they leave much to be desired. Judging them historically, one must use their own standards for we are all just products of out times and societies. With that, they were likely no different that their contemporaries. But if you subscribe to the literalist point-of-view, then morality is absolute and unchanging. Right and wrong have always been and will always be the same. Good is not relative. With this we must judge them much more harshly. If alive today, they would be terrible people. Can’t you see this story on Jerry Springer. ”And then he gave me a piece of bread and shoved me and my baby into the wilderness. Oh the bastard!” Sarah and Abraham would be lucky to make it out of the studio alive. And that “She’s my sister, go ahead and marry her” con would, certainly, net them a few years in prison.
And let’s not even bring up the psychotic break involving Isaac on the altar. That incident lies like a cold hard nail in the softness of the rest of Abraham’s flaws. Even if you could understand him before, sympathy will be a bit harder to come by after that.