I’ve been trying to establish a healthy dialog with a few biblical scholars and, so far, I have failed to express myself in a way that would make this possible.
I understand that some scholars could be reluctant to engage with me because of what they may perceive to be a “fringe hypothesis without a shred of evidence” and I do sympathize with their fear of lowering themselves and tainting their reputation.
This said, my intentions are noble and I am confident that the issue is not one of lack of knowledge or evidence, but one of different perspective. And in this regard, I need to position my work in a way that will entice them to be curious and to want to learn more.
I see much value in such dialogs because I am seeking for allies who aren’t necessarily going to be on my side: some may vet my work… but others may poke holes into it! Ultimately, both are equally important to further a cause that I believe is of the utmost importance for our future.
Twenty questions on Abraham
As I am preparing to launch my new non-fiction comic entitled “To be done with Sodom”, I thought I would post twenty (out of many more!) questions I would like to ask biblical scholars… as well as the answers I believe most of them would likely provide. These answers are based on my experience and on common assumptions.
This is about history, not theology. If you are a biblical scholar and would answer differently, I would love to hear from you! If you would like to engage and learn more about my work, I promise you won’t regret.
And I’m curious… Even if you are not a scholar, would you answer any of these questions much differently?
- Q1: What do we know of the story of Abraham?
- It is a myth that was passed down orally. Abraham is considered the first Jew to have made a covenant with God. He received the land of Canaan and blessings for his descendants in exchange for his loyalty.
- Q2: What brought biblical scholars to conclude that Abraham never existed?
- There is absolutely no archaeological evidence for the patriarchs. But perhaps most importantly, monotheism has been shown to be a late development. There is therefore no way that the story of Abraham could date back to the Bronze Age.
- Q3: Why is Abraham’s Lord sometimes appearing as an anthropomorphic character in the story, and other times as an immaterial being?
- The Documentary Hypothesis suggests that sources from two different authors – named “J” for Jehovah and “E” for Elohim would have been combined to form the current text. It is a little more complicated than that, but in a nutshell, the anthropomorphic nature of Yahweh should be ascribed to author “J” and the immaterial nature of Elohim to author “E”.
- Q4: Why do you think the Jewish tradition claims Abraham lived during the Bronze Age?
- After the Exile, the Jewish people looked for ways to strengthen their identity. They used myth and folklore and created these stories as a retro-projection of their history.
- Q5: Is it true that some powerful men of antiquity were deified during the Bronze Age?
- Yes, not only during the Bronze Age, but during most of Antiquity. Some were deified while still living, and many were deified after their death. Even Alexander the Great was elevated as the chief god of the Ptolemies!
- Q6: To your knowledge, has anyone ever investigated the possibility that Abraham’s Lord could have been a mortal overlord?
- The fact that the God of the Bible exhibits anthropomorphic characteristics is totally in line with the historical context. Keep in mind that it was the norm, rather than the exception, for gods to interact with humans. Just think of the Greek gods.
- Q7: What do scholars know of Genesis 14?
- It is the story of the four eastern kings launching a punitive campaign on the valley of Siddim. Some of the elements in the story could be quite old, but the text was very likely a late addition. Whatever the case may be, this chapter clearly does not contribute to the rest of the Abrahamic narrative!
- Q8: Isn’t strange that Abraham’s Lord appears to be pursuing the same goal as the four eastern kings of Genesis 14 when he annihilates the Sodomites in Genesis 19?
- Maybe, but it was for a very different reason! They were wicked and lacked hospitality.
- Q9: Were there any differences between the early Israelites and the Canaanites?
- Not really. Popular archeologist Israel Finkelstein has surveyed most of the highlands and concluded there was literally no difference. Differences emerged as the Israelites adopted Yahweh as their God.
- Q10: Is it true that Bronze Age Canaanites, practiced the cult of the dead?
- Yes. The Canaanites were pagans, and their practices were condemned in the Bible.
- Q11: Wouldn’t it then possible that the early Israelites also practiced the cult of the dead?
- Yes, it is possible
- Q12: Is it true that Abraham made his covenant in Shechem?
- Yes, that is likely… In Genesis 12:6 the Lord appears to Abraham at Shechem to let him know that “Unto thy seed will I give this land.”
- Q13: Is it true that “Baal Berith” was a pagan deity and that its name means “Lord of Covenant” in Hebrew?
- Yes, indeed.
- Q14: And so “El Berith” would mean “God of the Covenant”
- Yes, but we know very little about this Shechemite deity. In fact, they could be one and the same god or two different gods. We just don’t know.
- Q15: By the way, isn’t “Lord of the Covenant” an epithet also used for Yahweh?
- Yes, occasionally.
- Q16: And wasn’t Asherah the consort of Baal Berith… and the consort of Yahweh?
- Yes, she was a popular goddess!
- Q17: Is it true that a temple was erected in Shechem for “Baal/El Berith”?
- Yes, according to Judges 9
- Q18: Isn’t it strange that Baal Berith – the Lord or God of Covenant – was worshiped in Shechem precisely when the Jewish tradition claims Abraham made his covenant with the Lord?
- Indeed. There existed a covenantal tradition at Shechem that influenced the later authors of the Bible…
- Q19: Why did Joshua Joshua assembled the Israelites in Shechem and encouraged them to reaffirm their adherence to Abraham’s Covenant? And why were Abimelech and Rehoboam crowned in Shechem? It would seem like it was a very important site, even for the early Israelites…
- Q20: If Abraham had made a covenant with a powerful overlord, is there anything that would prevent us from ascribing this story to the Bronze Age?
- Well, there are also a few anachronisms, such as the camels and the Philistines.
To sum it up
The academic consensus is that Abraham is a fictitious character and that his myth, which would have been influenced by the covenantal traditions of Shechem, was passed down orally. Many scholars also believe that the anthropomorphic and immaterial figures found in the narrative likely come from separate sources J&E. Finally, many believe that Genesis 14 has nothing to do with the rest of the story.
Meanwhile, the story tells us that right after the four eastern kings are defeated by Abraham, the “Lord” shows up to make a covenant with him… and that the same Lord annihilates the people of Sodom after they refuse to submit to his authority.
We also know that the early Israelites could have been practicing the cult of the dead and that “Baal Berith” was worshipped in Shechem along with Asherah. Finally, we know that Shechem was an important trade corridor during the Bronze Age, when Mesopotamia traded with Egypt.
Given the above, isn’t time we seriously start considering the possibility that the story of Abraham evolved from the deification of a mortal overlord? I believe there is plenty of strong evidence supporting this idea, and this is what I love to talk about.
Imagine the impact this could have on apologetic’s claims of inerrancy and new possibilities for peace in the world… We’re not just talking about a story in a story here. We are talking about the origin of the God of the Bible, the very object of faith of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Now, how do we get such a dialog going?