First, here’s a Spotify playlist of mine to put you in mind to read the Old Testament. It’s Middle Eastern, foreign, archaic, a little mystical and mysterious. It’s probably not anything like actual Israelite music, but it fits my preconceptions.
Second, let’s establish some basic facts.
- Like the Jaredites in the Book of Mormon, Abraham is neither Jewish nor Israelite nor under the Law of Moses. “Jewish” as a category won’t really exist until after the Babylonian Exile c. 587 BCE, and Israelites only come into being with the descendants of Israel/Jacob, who is Abraham’s grandson. Moses comes several generations further beyond that. Abraham himself is from Mesopotamia, at various times home to Sumer, Assyria, and Babylon. Even Jacob/Israel is characterized as “a wandering Aramean” (Deu 26:5). Aram is sometimes known as Aram-Naharaim, or Aram between the Two Rivers, and was the northern land between the Tigris and Euphrates, which is again, Mesopotamia (Greek for between the rivers.)
- The patriarchal narratives here in Genesis are not 1st-hand contemporary accounts. They probably began as oral traditions/histories, that were eventually written down much later. At minimum, they were heavily updated/edited for a much later audience. How do we know this? The text itself tells us through a multitude of details, e.g.
- Abram is said to come from Ur of the Chaldees, but the extant “rich documentation records nothing about Chaldeans in southern Babylonia before about the beginning of the first millennium b.c.e., and this people did not become the ruling caste until the seventh-sixth centuries b.c.e. Therefore, if ‘Ur of the Chaldeans’ refers to this city, the characterization would seem to be an anachronism in our text.” (JPS Torah Commentary on 11:28) See here for an LDS take on the southern Ur (majority position) vs. northern Ur (minority position).
- In Genesis 14:14, Abraham goes north “as far as Dan.” But wait, who is the city of Dan named after? Isn’t that the tribe of Dan, one of Jacob’s sons, and therefore Abraham’s great-grandson? How does Abraham visit a city named after his great-grandson? The city itself is extremely old, and was only renamed Dan much later. Judges 18:29 tells us “they named it Dan after their ancestor… but the city’s name used to be Laish.” The name has been updated, much as when we say “the pioneers went to Utah” when in fact it only received the name Utah later.
- Several times in the patriarchal stories, we read literary time stamps put in by the narrator/editor, e.g. Genesis 12:6 “at that time, the Canaanites were in the land.” Phrases like that indicate that the storyteller inhabits a different time in which the condition no longer holds, i.e. “Back then, the Canaanites were in the land, but they’re not anymore.” Cf. Genesis 13:7.
- Camels figure prominently in some of the patriarchal stories, such as Rebekah impressing Jacob’s servant, watering the camels at the well. Several recent mainstream articles have publicized what the majority of scholars have thought for years, namely that domesticated camels were not known around Canaan until significantly after the time of the patriarchs. See the New York Times referring to a recent study from Tel Aviv. Joel Baden (whom I knew briefly at Chicago before he transferred to Harvard, he’s now a Bible prof at Yale) has his take here. Instead, donkeys would have been the primary pack animals. As usual, there is a minority of scholars that disagree. Camel trivia- If it has one hump, it’s a dromedary; two humps means a Bactrian camel.
Taken as a whole, these and other data points strongly suggest that these accounts were either composed (not in the sense of “written down”) or else heavily updated much later than the patriarchal period. How one adjudicates between those two views is not easy to explain (Peter Enns has a great blog post about why it’s difficult), but the take-away is identical in either case; we should probably not be asking, “why did it happen this way” (as things are unlikely to have happened just exactly that way) but rather “why was the story told this way? What is it teaching?” This turns out to be a very orthodox question.
“Many Bible accounts that trouble the inexperienced reader become clear and acceptable if the essential meaning of the story is sought out.” Elder Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, around p. 127.
“Charles W. Penrose, with Anthony W. Ivins, writing for the First Presidency, answered that the position of the church was that the Bible is the word of God as far as it was translated correctly. They pointed out that there were, however, some problems with the Old Testament. The Pentateuch, for instance, was written by Moses, but “it is evident that the five books passed through other hands than Moses’s after his day and time. The closing chapter of Deuteronomy proves that.” While they thought Jonah was a real person, they said it was possible that the story as told in the Bible was a parable common at the time. The purpose was to teach a lesson, and it “is of little significance as to whether Jonah was a real individual or one chosen by the writer of the book” to illustrate “what is set forth therein.” They took a similar position on Job. What is important, Penrose and Ivins insisted, was not whether the books were historically accurate, but whether the doctrines were correct.” As cited in Thomas Alexander, Mormonism in Transition (a history of the Church from 1890-1930, and originally commissioned by the Church), 283. My emphasis.
To illustrate this, I want to go jump to a short story we usually skip, that of Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:30ff). After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which Lot and his daughters escape, they become convinced that they are the last three people alive. The two daughters take turns getting Lot drunk and sleeping with him in order to preserve humanity. Most of us stop there, shake our heads, and move on. The key to unraveling the story is not yet, though! Like the book of Jonah, the key comes at the very end.
37 And the firstborn bare a son, and called his name Moab: the same is the father of the Moabites unto this day.38 And the younger, she also bare a son, and called his name Benammi: the same is the father of the children of Ammon unto this day.
Instead of asking “why did it happen this way” and wondering at their judgment, and the weird sexuality in the Old Testament, let’s ask “why would the story be told or passed down this way?” Note the presence of those later editorial timestamps in both phrases, “the same is the father of the children of Ammon unto this day.”The key here is that the two children are the founding ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites, Israel’s later neighbors across the Jordan and Dead Sea, who spoke a very similar language to Hebrew. This story is an etiology, an explanation of the origin of why something is the way it is. The story was shaped and told this way to answer the question, “what is our relationship with the Ammonites and Edomites?”
Thus the traditional answer was, “The Moabites and Edomites are our incestuous bastard distant cousins.” That’s not exactly doctrine, but remember that the scriptures weren’t written for strictly doctrinal reasons or as a doctrinal handbook. Questions of identity were extremely important to the Israelites, however. What was a Hebrew, and what distinguished a Hebrew from his neighbors? The Old Testament takes pains to make such distinctions, and some sociologists think the ban on pork stemmed from similar impulses.
To summarize, we probably shouldn’t read these stories strictly as history, since they underwent such heavy editing or long oral shaping. And certainly, other parts of these stories are very clearly much older, such as when the patriarchs marry sisters in violation of the later Law of Moses. (Such a detail is unlikely to be unhistorical.) Recognizing the process that produced them doesn’t mean that we can’t get anything out of them or that we should simply discount them, so let’s let Elder Widtsoe finish his statement (which, I note, makes some assumptions about how scripture was written).
Many Bible accounts that trouble the inexperienced reader become clear and acceptable if the essential meaning of the story is sought out. To read the Bible fairly, it must be read as President Brigham Young suggested: ‘Do you read the scriptures, my brethren and sisters, as though you were writing them a thousand, two thousand, or five thousand years ago? Do you read them as though you stood in the place of the men who wrote them?’ (Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 197-8). This is our guide. The scriptures must be read intelligently.
- The lesson is on the Abrahamic covenant, so see my temple-centric essay here on What is a covenant? I don’t elaborate there on the three main kinds of ancient Near Eastern covenants/treaties/contracts.
- Parity covenants, made between equals, like two different kings.
- Suzerain-vassal covenants, made between a superior (God, high king) and inferior (God’s people, lesser kings.) The law of Moses as ratified in Exodus 24 and Deuteronomy take the form of a suzerain-vassal treaty. The subjects promise loyalty and obedience and God/the king promises protection and life, i.e. “blessings.” Violating the covenant brings various cursings and death. See the above link on covenant, but also here and here.
- Land-grant covenants. This is actually the form of the covenant God makes with Abraham in Genesis 15, which records a very interesting ritual in which God binds himself on pain of death to keep the land in Abraham’s family. Land-grant covenants were one-way covenants in which a king bestowed land on a vassal in perpetuity, out of the goodness of the king’s heart. Note that no requirements, no terms are laid upon Abraham there.
- So, what about the LDS-specific Book of Abraham? Let me say three things briefly. I am happy to assert and do believe that the Book of Abraham is inspired, that we should decouple its doctrinal value from assumptions or preliminary conclusions about its history, or the translation process, which are extremely technical, historically complicated, and still largely unknown. More comments of mine on the section of Abraham that deals with creation found here.
- Not because I agree with them completely, but because they represent certain perspectives well, I recommend
- Gee’s overview of the papyrus and translation.
- Kevin Barney’s “The Facsimiles and Semitic Adaptation of Existing Sources“
- Ricks and Hoskisson, “Historical Plausibility: the historicity of the Book of Abraham as a Case Study“
- In Genesis, there’s a famine, so Abraham goes to Egypt. This is ancient Near Eastern common sense, since Egypt was the breadbasket of the region. Egyptian agriculture was based upon the yearly flooding of the Nile (in relation to last week’s lesson, note Egypt has no tradition of a massive flood), which was fed by the rains much further south in Africa, the sources of the Nile. Droughts that affected the fertile crescent were unlikely to stretch as far south as the sources of the Nile, which makes traveling to Egypt a safe bet in times of famine, as Jacob and his sons will do. Note also, the episodes in our Book of Abraham stop before he ever gets to Egypt.
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