Did Abraham bowed down to a Mesopotamian overlord?

In a previous post, I argued that the Abrahamic Covenant was made to pacify and secure control over the valley of Siddim, an important trade corridor between Egypt and Mesopotamia. Today, I would like to offer additional evidence that Abraham did submit to a Mesopotamian overlord.

A good way to achieve this might be to start by comparing the narrative structure of the story of Abraham with known historical treaties of similar nature. In a collection of approximately twenty Hittite and Assyrian treaties, spanning from 1380 BCE to 450 BCE, Wilhelm G. Grewe (1995) offers a set of texts that exhibits a great diversity of treaties, whose form tends to change over time. In the proposed samples, it can be observed that the earlier Hittite treaties make greater use of historical background, while the later Assyrian treaties tend to incorporate more curses.[1]

When referring to the covenant promises made to Abraham, Noel Weeks wrote, “They have their closest analogies outside of Israel in royal land grants.[2] Weeks is not the first one to make this connection. Several years before him, Moshe Weinfeld suggested while analyzing the covenants that Yahweh made with Abraham and David:

“Although the grant to Abraham and David is close in its formulation to the neo-Assyrian grants and therefore might be late, the promises themselves are much older and reflect, the Hittite pattern of grant. ‘Land’ and ‘house’ (= dynasty), the objects of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants respectively, are indeed the most prominent gifts of the suzerain in the Hittite and Syro-Palestinian political reality, and like the Hittite grants so also the grant of land to Abraham and the grant of “house” to David are unconditional.” [3]

These excerpt tend to confirm that even biblical scholars acknowledge that the structure of the Abrahamic narrative has important similarities with ancient royal land grants of the Hittites. It was common for kings of the Ancient Near East to occasionally grant their unconditional promise of favor to a loyal servant by granting land in exchange for total submission and loyalty.[4] In Genesis 17, the Lord offers land to Abraham and tells him: “walk before my face, and be perfect”.

Is the rest of the narrative supporting the idea of total submission? One can indeed find a number of cultural traits and manners in the story of Abraham that are very characteristics of such a state. For instance:

  • Name change: Much like cattle get marked with red irons, slave owners have always had the right to choose or change the name of their slaves. Shouldn’t the request to add an “H” (ה) in their names, not be understood as a subtle mark of servitude to King Hammurabi?
    • Gn 17:5 “And thy name shall no more be called Abram (אברמ), but thy name shall be AbraHam (אברהמ); for a father of a multitude of nations have I made thee.
    • Gn 17:15 And God said to Abraham, [As to] Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai (שרי), but SaraH (שרה) shall be her name.
  • Circumcision: Circumcision has also always been a mark of submission, control, and self-abnegation. Historians have long suggested that this ritual is an ancient form of social control, i.e. `We have control over your distinction to be a man, your pleasure and your right to reproduce’. In Egypt, male descendants of slaves were also being circumcised.[5] The Lord imposes circumcision to Abraham and his descendants as yet another mark of servitude.
    • Gn 17:10 This is my covenant which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee—that every male among you be circum
    • Gn 17:14 “And the uncircumcised male who hath not been circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that soul shall be cut off from his peoples: he hath broken my covenant.”
  • Perfect heir: Throughout history, children have been conceived from master-slave relationships. In the Bible, a great deal is made of the fact that Abraham is unable to have a child with his half sister. The text explicitly states that the Lord takes the matter in his own hands (so to speak):
    • Gn 18:9 And they said to him (i.e. Abraham), Where is Sarah thy wife? And he said, Behold, in the tent.
    • Gn 21:1 And the Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had spoken.
    • Gn 21:2 And Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the appointed time of which the Lord had spoken to him.

Of course, when interpreting these last verses from a theological perspective, one sees a miracle: God intervenes to make Sarah fertile again. However, when considered from the perspective of a secular covenant, the situation could not be clearer: Hammurabi visits Sarah in the tent and impregnates her. Isaac is born nine months later. The solution is perfect: as Sarah is Abraham’s half sister, Isaac duly carries Abraham’s family bloodline, and so he ends up adopting and raising Isaac as his own son.

The Muslims are correct when they claim that Ishmael, rather than Isaac, is the son that Abraham was requested to sacrifice. Indeed, as Ishmael is born of Hagar, the Egyptian maid, his loyalty in case of a conflict between Mesopotamia and Egypt could not be guaranteed. The Lord needed a trustworthy heir… and what a better heir than the one issued from your own flesh?

Since the early days, Abraham has been understood to be the “father of the faith”, the “perfect believer” and the “friend of God”. We can now better understand where this tradition originates from. And although it might be comfortable for many to continue believing that the story of the Patriarch is the religious story of a divine covenant, who would knowingly want to continue living in a state of delusion?

[1] Grewe, Wilhelm G. 1995. Fontes Historiae Iuris Gentium: Quellen zur Geschichte des Völkerrechts. Band 1: 1380 v. Chr./B.C.-1493. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.
[2] Weeks, Noel. 1993. “Covenant and Treaty: A Study in Intercultural Relations.” Lucas (16): 10-22. p. 9
[3] Weinfeld, Moshe. 1970. “The Covenant of Grant in the Old Testament and in the Ancient Near East.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 90(2): 184-203. pp. 196-200
[4] Steinmann, Andrew, Michael A. Eschelbach, Curtis P. Giese and Paul Puffe. 2015. Called to be God’s People : an introduction to the Old Testament. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers. p.75
[5] Dunsmuir, W. D. and E. M. Gordon. 1999. “The History of Circumcision.” BJU International (83): 1-12.