How to Read the Bible: Chapter 8, by James Kugel

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The 8th chapter of Kugel’s tome describes the two ways (modern and ancient) to interpret the trials of Abraham, who underwent many hardships in his early days before settling down to become the father of a nation.

Ancient Interpretation

In the eyes of ancient interpreters, the trials of Abraham brought up the question: why would a benevolent creator allow so much hardship. For one thing, Abraham was obedient in everything God told him to do, and he was the founder of God’s Jewish nation. Therefore, God apparently brings hardship to those who he loves most. The ancient interpreters decided that God was testing Abraham, to prove that he was fit to be founder. Instead of a test being proof that God doesn’t love him, it’s proof that God does love him – because it gives Abraham the opportunity to prove his worth.

The most important test that Abraham underwent was when he was asked to sacrifice Isaac in a fiery offering to God. This was horrifying to the Jewish interpreters, who were told later in the Bible never to sacrifice their own children. However, they came up with a good reason. At the time that they were writing their interpretations, they were undergoing a lot of hardships themselves. Many had to become martyrs for their religion. But they asked: is it ok to be a martyr, or is that like suicide, which is forbidden? Thus, they interpreted Isaac as knowing that he was going to be sacrificed – he was therefore the first martyr, and gave implied permission for others to follow suit. For instance, they noted that Abraham, who was over 100 years old at this time, couldn’t have tied up an unwilling 10-12 year old, who could obviously run and struggle. Furthermore, they rationalized using this passage:

And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and he put it on his son Isaac, and he took the fire and the knife, and they walked the two of them together. Then Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father?” and he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham said, God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And they walked the two of them together. Genesis 22:6-8

First of all, the Bible never repeats itself or says anything for emphasis, rationalized the ancient interpreters, therefore the repetition of the words “And they walked the two of them together” must have a hidden meaning. They supposed that, since Hebrew had no word for “is” that the passage meant “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering: my son.” Thus, Abraham did tell Isaac about that he was the offering, and Isaac then walked together with his father in that knowledge.

Modern Interpretation

Modern scholars would not see the story of Abraham as a single unit of stories, but as a group of writings by different people written at different times – the writers J, P, and E (as described in Chapter 1). Therefore, the text doesn’t have a single “Abraham was tested” theme. In fact, some of the hardships that Abraham went through seem to be his own fault. When he lied to the Egyptians by telling them that Sarah was his sister instead of his wife, Pharaoh took Sarah as his concubine. When God punished him for taking Sarah, Pharaoh came back and asked Abraham why he had lied, and sent him on his way. Meanwhile, Abraham had become rich because of his relationship to Pharaoh’s concubine. Modern interpreters would tend to think Pharaoh was the one who was wronged in this situation. In fact, the story may be a way of accounting for Abraham’s great wealth later, rather than a story of a hardship.

As for the story of sacrificing Isaac, modern scholars see it as an etiological explanation for why the Bible and laws later said that nobody should ever sacrifice their child.

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

2 thoughts on “How to Read the Bible: Chapter 8, by James Kugel

  1. Fascinating stuff. It makes me think of Harold Bloom’s take on this. In the Book of J he laid out his theory that the original writer of these stories wanted the reader to be appalled by God’s action. This original writer was trying to depict a mad and cruel universe. He also thought that this original writer was a woman. I am not sure that Bloom is correct, but he tends to be interesting.

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