Life is But a Dream


Abraham: The First Historical Biography
By David Rosenberg
342 pages. Basic Books. $26.95.

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin' me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin' done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61.”

—Bob Dylan

David Rosenberg’s book opens beautifully as it ponders the significance of Abraham, an aging, childless expatriate who, full of cosmic insight and energy, undertakes an excursion burdened with uncertainty. Abraham leaves Ur, passes through Harran, and finally lands in Canaan, but he does not wander blindly in the desert. The journey westward, as Rosenberg tells it, is fascinating, replete with poignant moments. And, the author implies, Abraham's trek has a specific and grandiose goal: to found a “new world,” one that might survive increasing threats to the ancient culture of Sumer.

Sumerian civilization emerged as early as 8000 BCE and blossomed about 3000 BCE with the invention of cuneiform, a complex system of abstract writing. Despite the fact that Sumer was conquered by the Akkadians in 2370 BCE, was overrun by Semitic Amorites around 1900 BCE, and absorbed into Hammurabi’s empire in 1792 BCE, Rosenberg argues that Abraham, born in 1750 BCE—a date still in question for students of ancient Jewish history—was saturated in Sumerian culture. Sumerian culture, notes Rosenberg, embraced the natural world and emphasized human desire and artfulness.

In Canaan, Abraham “constructed” a new god, Yahweh, by blending his personal Sumerian household god with the “creator god” he had found in the Promised Land. In Abraham’s story, Yahweh, the god that will eventually have no others before him, emerges as a self-conscious being, non-human and supernatural, yet one who can be lonely and in need of an Abraham to “talk” and “walk” with. Abraham fashioned a profoundly “new cosmic theater” to replace the one in which Sumerians had interacted with their gods by bringing Yahweh, who apparently chooses to converse occasionally with some men other than Abraham, even an ordinary Canaanite king, down to earth. It was not simply the implied new monotheism that was so earth-shaking, Rosenberg argues, but rather the changed relationship between humanity and God, a revolutionary relationship which provided for an ongoing negotiation of our place in the universe and in the future (essentially guaranteed by God).

Rosenberg uses lots of archaeological evidence, some of which has been recently unearthed, and this makes for exciting reading. He also analyzes, with great originality, the artistic and historical motives of the biblical authors, including those known only as E and P. And he pays special attention to the earliest biblical writer, J—a woman, according to Rosenberg’s earlier work The Book of J, co-authored with Harold Bloom. However, in his desire to prove that his Abraham is indeed the first historical biography, the only one which separates history from “myth,” Rosenberg can be repetitive, frustrating, and confusing. Much of his story rests on words such as “probably,” “may have,” “must have,” “surely,” and “most likely.” He claims to be battling the idea that “nothing can be known for sure about the historical Abraham,” but his book is itself in many ways an audacious, yet beguiling, speculation: had it not been for the dynamic strength of Sumer, with its inventive poetry and religion and its persistence in Akkadian culture, no Judaism would have been possible. Maybe. But this conclusion and the absolute way it is framed leaves no room for other historical versions. There are, for example, many books and essays that try to make a case not only for vestiges of Judaism in many places, but for Judaism’s early origins in Egypt, or in East Africa, particularly Ethiopia, with its Beta Israel (House of Israel) people, or in the White Nile River Valley, inhabited by the monotheistic Watusi, or in South Africa in the Venda territory, and part of southern Zimbabwe where the Lemba people live with their circumcisions, strict dietary laws, and other familiar rituals, and whose tribal symbol is a Star of David (with an elephant at the center). Some allusion, positive or negative, to these works and others might have strengthened Rosenberg’s conclusion.

The Akedah Revisited

In the heart of this book lies one of the most interesting and chilling stories in the Hebrew scriptures, Akedah or Akedat Yitschak in Hebrew—“the binding of Isaac,” in which Abraham is commanded by God to kill his son, Isaac. Here, unlike in his insistent conversations with God about Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham does no negotiating. Early in the book, Rosenberg treats this forbidding episode parenthetically: “What God has said can turn out to be realistic good advice and what Abraham has said can change God’s mind; dreams oscillate into nightmares but ultimately the subject awakes in the natural world in which he went to sleep (as when Abraham and Isaac return [No translation of Genesis that I know has Isaac returning] from their hallucinatory encounter with child sacrifice.)” Later, Rosenberg tells us that Yahweh had not come to Abraham in a dream but in a “verisimilitude of reality.” Even later, he says that nothing in Abraham’s background would have prepared him for “the plausibility of child sacrificed—except in a dream.” Well, what was it, a hallucination, a verisimilitude of reality (a rather strange and unclear phrase), or a dream?

And how is it that Rosenberg can simply toss off the controversy about child sacrifice with what amounts to an offhand remark? There is, after all, a literature out there that contends that child sacrifice was central to the cults of Israel’s neighbors. And if child sacrifice, as Rosenberg would have it, was “an anachronism,” one wonders why the Hebrew prophets, particularly Micah, raged against the practice, and why prohibitions against child sacrifice appear in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

The Akedah story continues to generate interpretations. Rosenberg’s version, in which Yahweh does not intervene directly in the human realm but has Abraham awaking to his physical surroundings and thus from “the nightmare of Isaac’s sacrifice,” is only one of many “explanations” and speculations. One midrash, for example, suggests that Abraham misunderstood God altogether. It has God saying: “Did I tell you to ‘slaughter him’? Did I not rather tell you ‘Bring him up’? [a wordplay in Hebrew]. You brought him up on the altar, now take him down again.” Yet another view of the story has Abraham carrying out the sacrifice of Isaac, who afterward is miraculously revived. This version allows consistency for God’s commandments and his promises in Genesis: Abraham is tested and Isaac is still around to make a great nation. There is also a Yiddish folktale that asks why Yahweh did not send one of his angels to tell Abraham to sacrifice his son instead of doing it himself. The suggested answer is that God knew that no angel would have taken on such a mission. The angels would have protested saying, “If you want to command child sacrifice, do it yourself.” And we ought not to forget Woody Allen’s take—which reflects closely the secular humanist point of view—in which the Lord who had commanded the sacrifice (as a joke) asks Abraham at the last minute “How could thou doest such a thing?” Abraham is confused and asks God if he hasn’t proved his faithfulness. And the Lord says the only thing this “proves is that some men will follow any order no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.”

All of these renderings have at least one thing in common: Abraham, for good or ill, is obedient to God’s commands. Rosenberg eliminates the horrific command altogether, as well as Abraham’s blind faith in the supernatural, by turning it all into a sleepwalker’s dream, a nightmare seemingly shared by Isaac. The angel Abraham hears does not exert force against the raised knife. There is only a voice, an angel’s voice, which Rosenberg suggests corresponds to Abraham’s inner one. This is an appealing interpretation, especially to those of us who are taken with predicate theology, a belief system in which divine goodness is firmly lodged within the comprehension of human beings, as is ungodly evil. But Rosenberg’s hallucination version avoids or reduces the possible meanings of Abraham’s actions.

Over time, artists such as Rembrandt, Christian thinkers such as Kierkegaard, and Jewish philosophers such as Buber have been moved and puzzled by the Akedah story. And many of us ordinary citizens continue to read this part of Genesis with some nervousness, if not with fear, trembling, and all the rest. Questions emerge again and again about what kind of God gives such a command, and what kind of father obeys it. Did God have foreknowledge of Abraham’s actions? Did Abraham have such faith (or knowledge of God) that he believed the sacrifice necessary or, less darkly, that Yahweh would stay his hand?

In the search for “answers,” or for meaning in these Akedah passages, one can accept Rosenberg’s intelligent and even moving interpretation, but one must also wrestle with Kierkegaard’s many-layered and oft-quoted statement, “Faith is a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy art well-pleasing to God, a paradox which gives Isaac back to Abraham, which no thought can master because faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off.”