ABRAHAM: THE KNIGHT OF REASON

By Mark Glouberman

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The Montréal Review, March 2024

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Shepherd and His Sheep by Daniel Arredondo

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Sparking the cultural revolution described in the Bible is a position that Abraham comes up with, a position about the nature of persons. It’s a philosophical position. It sorts with the likes of Descartes’s dualism. As this implies, Abraham doesn’t come up with the position by travelling a revelatory route. His aperçu is the product of reason-governed reflection.

Not a few philosophers defend religious belief-systems of the Western kind, belief-systems at whose center is a personal being transcendent of the physical realm and who has a special interest in that realm’s human constituents. There’s no denying that Abraham, as described in the biblical narrative, binds his life to such a being. But the chapters and the verses that tell his story don’t mean what both the devout and the non-believing in our midst take them to mean. At its deepest level, the Abrahamic revolution, albeit couched in a theological idiom, does not target the theology of the then dominant cultural ensemble. It’s the ensemble’s anthropological teachings that it has in its cross-hairs. The contention, on the critical side, is that the conception of men and women that informs this worldview is false to what men and women really are. (It goes without saying that such an error is likely to have damaging effects on the side of practice.) The Bible’s description of the first man being enlivened by God’s breath is a distillate of the alternative. Alone among creatures, men and women have something of God in them. At so early a stage of my discussion, saying this is not very informative. It does, however, carry a bit of information. Naturalism, it says, is unequal to the character of men and women. For if what God exhales were capable of being synthesized in a lab, then a being who transcends space and time could be dispensed with. Theologically expressed, the position is that the other gods (as the Bible refers to them) are unequal to the character of men and women. Unequal how? What is it that God gives to men and women or does for them that the other gods cannot give to them or do for them? Is the biblical alternative true to what men and women are? To answer these questions, our understanding of the alternative needs filling out. Be as may be the last judgement, I’ll show that those among us who profess themselves followers of the Bible are not following Abraham. In fact, as I’ll also show, the faithless among us quite possible are.

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We can get going with God’s call to Abraham to get going. ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house’ (Genesis 12:1). Abraham’s compliant reaction is then described. ‘So Abraham went, as the Lord had told him’ (4). Does Abraham reflect long and hard before he accedes? The sense of the text is that he doesn’t. Which, in part, is why so many consumers of the Bible see in Abraham the paradigmatic person of faith.

Relevantly to this issue of Abraham’s faith is a problem in the translation on which I am drawing. ‘Told’ in verse 4 makes it sound as if Abraham does as he is told. In fact, the verb applied to God is ‘said,’ which gives the quite neutral ‘Abraham’s course of action is the course of action that God describes.’ I will not in this brief discussion address the episode that is always presented as sealing the deal. I do not read ‘the binding of Isaac,’ as the episode is titled, as epitomizing Abraham’s faith. But my point here is only the uncontroversial one that if one is going to appeal to some text by way of establishing Abraham’s status as this or that, one had better read the text properly.

A number of problems confront the interpreter of the events described at the start of chapter 12. Problem One: Why would Abraham veer from his life’s path on the basis of a voice from out of the blue? The description contains nothing that suggests a fear-inducing thunderclap to which the natural reaction is a reflexive startle.

Wedged between ‘Go’ and ‘went’ we find God’s promise of greatness – ‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great’ (2). This brings the interpreter to suspect that Abraham lacks an independent reason for complying. If we credit the suspicion, it becomes reasonable to say that God is asking Abraham to do something that Abraham would not do without a substantial inducement. Indeed, and quite apart from assessing the inducement, the way that the situation looks from Abraham’s perspective (as we are at this juncture, fairly passively, thinking of the perspective) would seem even more strongly to question his response. Inertia could explain why the inducement is dangled before him. Stuck in our ways, we often do need a push or a pull to do what we ourselves understand to be in our interest. On what basis, however, would Abraham think that the promiser, thitherto unknown to him, is in a position to deliver? It’s quite true that if our parents ask us to do something, compliance is indicated. Nor, except in unusual circumstances, do we question our parents’ motives. But by the time we are able to understand a request that comes from them, our parents have a track-record with us. Prior to the theophany, Abraham, by contrast, knows nothing of God. The world of Abraham’s day knows nothing of God. Abraham is not therefore being asked – asked in a clear way, anyway – to go against something that his father forbad him to go against. Fulfillment of the request will please God. (Consider this, though. Would Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, on the usual reading of the act, please God? God requests it. ‘Take your son’ [22:2]. Perhaps Abraham’s willingness to do the deed would please God. Plainly, however, the death of Isaac on the altar, to which fulfilling the request would lead, is unacceptable to God. So one must tread carefully before pronouncing about God’s attitudes.) But since God does no more than promise greatness on condition that Abraham comply, what are Abraham’s grounds for thinking that fulfillment will do any good down here? The story of Jack and the Beanstalk comes to mind. This, unless we take the point to be that Abraham is a man of faith (given the offer-too-good-to-pass-up that is tacked on to ‘Go,’ even the devout should hesitate here) does not speak well of the human initiator of the New Way. To tell children that the prize goes to the intrepid is not to encourage, let alone to approve, bartering the family’s cow for a handful of beans that a total stranger touts as magical. The story of the closest thing in the Bible to Jack, his namesake Jacob, is more realistic. Seven years labour, then seven more, to win the hand of his somewhat problematic heart’s desire. What, anyway, is wrong with Abraham’s condition in his native land and in his father’s house? We are never told of a Mesopotamian Kristallnacht. To be sure, we – long-time students of the Bible – are in a position to do more than guess about the sequel of Abraham’s response. Despite a measure of inscrutability in God’s doings, it’s clear to us from the get‑thee‑going that whether effectively by our lights or not what God does is done under the standard of betterment for all. The issue is not, however, about what is clear to us. (I should add that why what is offered is a betterment is not at all clear to us. It’s not helpful to say that God is benevolent. Moreover, the Tanakh ends with the national enterprise in shambles. Jack appears to fare a good deal better with his beans than do the covenanters with their nation.) ‘Didn’t God create the world? Aren’t all creatures beholden to him for their very being, as we know that we are for ours to our parents?’ This sounds like a good point only if we forget that ‘God created the heavens and the earth’ doesn’t state something that was on the table even as science fiction in the world in which Abraham was acculturated.

To say that the world of Abraham’s day knows nothing of God isn’t to say that God, prior to appearing to Abraham, is unknown to the world. Notably, the first man knows God. This leads to Problem Two: What’s happened to Adam’s knowledge?

‘God is known.’ If we agree that Adam knows God, must we not say, given Abraham’s story, that the knowledge was lost over the years? Although saying this solves Problem Two, Problem One is left standing.

I’ll add here that Adam not only knows God, he also knows that he was made by God. After he awakens from the etherized sleep, a pain in his side, a (talking!) woman by his side, he will have reasoned thus. ‘She, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, is God-made; I, therefore, am too.’ Accordingly, had God said to Adam that he should follow God’s way, Adam would have had a reason. (I said above that Abraham’s father’s culture had no story of a deity like God creating the physical world. There is nothing in the story on whose basis I ascribed to Adam the knowledge of his God-made status that tells him the same about the status of the physical world.)

Most interpreters construe Abraham’s reaction in the light of what happens to him later. But, as the preceding paragraphs indicate, if in interpreting the reaction we bracket off, as we should, our knowledge of what is to come, what he does is puzzling.

I’ll sum up. Problem One, about Abraham’s unhesitating response to God’s call, arises on the assumption that he doesn’t know what Adam knows. The implication is that he does have the knowledge. Where in the text, though, is there independent evidence of this? If, on the other hand, Abraham has the knowledge, why the theophany? Certainly, we are not going to say that in some biblically unreported meeting Abraham already encountered God. In view of the significance of the knowledge, wouldn’t its knower be sufficiently motivated to call out to the God-ignorant world, as we would to a person who doesn’t see the inner tube that would save them from drowning? Although we could say that Abraham is indecisive, this has a considerable downside, and in any case clashes with the clear-headed decisiveness that features much of what he does. God’s role is reduced to that of a glorified life coach, not a good look in a deity, and the God-chosen paragon is made out to be a ditherer, not a good look in a person chosen to lead. The fact is, though, that Abraham does, quite a bit later, call out to the world. In Genesis 22:33, it is written that he ‘planted a Tamarisk tree in Beer‑Sheba, and called there on the name of the Lord.’

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Abraham, I maintain, knows what Adam knows, and hence knows that he himself is God-made. In fact, not only does Abraham know about himself what Adam knows about himself; Abraham has the knowledge because he knows Adam’s story.

Who narrates the beginning part of the book of Genesis? Who among the book’s dramatis personae, that is, is in the best position to tell the story? Is the position of that person adequate to the content of the story that we have before us?

Central to the story is the new deity, God. Any candidate for narrator has got to have knowledge of this deity. Adam belongs to myth. He, therefore, is a non-starter. As to Noah, who also knows God, he is more mythical than legendary. The first figure who makes it to the interview room is Abraham.

On the hypothesis that Abraham is the narrator, it’s Abraham who tells of Adam. Obviously, if so, Abraham knows what Adam knows.

Problem One and Problem Two fall away, which confirms the hypothesis. For someone to have knowledge of Adam is for that someone to know that God is their maker too. It’s no surprise, if so, that Abraham answers the call. For he knows what he is being called to. To go with God is to slough off an improper self-understanding and to proceed in the world with a proper one. It is, in biblical rather than in Greek terms, to know thyself. As to what seems to be Abraham’s surprise: could it not be that whenever Pythagoras returned to the finding that √2 has no equivalent a/b expression, a finding that overturned his view of the physical world, he was struck afresh? ‘How about that?!’

Where does Abraham get the knowledge? He himself comes up with it. God’s call isn’t elaborated, then, because it doesn’t have to be. Indeed, Abraham’s having the knowledge is (=) his being called. How does Abraham come up with the knowledge? By reason-governed reflection on the character of things. Since, to him, what he’s come up with is momentous, it’s not surprising that the promise is of greatness. A momentous finding is a great thing. As to a promise’s being made at all: it’s not a matter of dithering, or of knowing the truth only (as Corinthians states) in part. It’s the down-to-earth fact that even with regard to the most trivial of things the future comes to us out of the dark. A last question associated with Problem One was this. If the knowledge is Abraham’s own, why a theophany? The answer is that the encounter dramatizes the core of Abraham’s finding. God says it straight. ‘I will make … you.’ This dramatization has of course misled many. I’ll have a word to say about the matter at the very end.

I turn now to elaborate on my uninformative answer to How does Abraham get the knowledge? In the process, I’ll clarify the What? of the knowledge.

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No reader of these pages needs to be told that there are in the Book of Genesis two creation stories in both of which the emergence of men and women is described. In the Genesis 1 story, humankind is created in God’s image and likeness. In the Genesis 2 story, God, in an act of artificial respiration, brings the first man to life, and then, by surgical means, makes the first woman.

Abraham knows what Adam knows, namely that each and every one of us persons is God-made. Indeed, my position is that Abraham’s revolution-making contribution consists in this knowledge; in what this knowledge means for his life and for the lives of each and every person. What about the creation of men and women in Genesis 1?

I’ll answer by placing this creation account in its wider situational/historical/cultural context. Here are lines 1-9 of Tablet 1 of the Enuma Elish.

When in the height heaven was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being,
And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained;
Then were created the gods in the midst of heaven

The world as we know it differentiates out of a primordial chaos. Doesn’t this ring a bell? Indeed, the scholars tell us, the first chapter of Genesis half-quotes these lines. Genesis 1 is in effect a de-mythologized version of the creation stories of the culture in which Abraham grew up. Which explains why Abraham is in a position to narrate it. It’s not that he is a closet cosmogonist. Narrated is what Abraham was taught in his native land and in his father’s house. It’s also, the gods apart, a highly plausible story, attractive to scientific cosmologists, with their premium on natural processes.

It’s no wonder then that the second creation story doesn’t go into the same matters as the first. By contrast with the first, the second creation story is Abrahamic.

‘Why would Abraham retain a non-Abrahamic creation story?’ Here’s why. With respect to the physical realm, the story is the best thing going, and the Bible is encyclopedic. The Bible deals in alephs and tavs, and the creation is the aleph of alephs. Moreover, by de-mythologizing the story, Abraham scores a point against the dominant culture. ‘Anything you can do I can do better, without the mystification.’ As to Genesis 1’s account: it tells of the emergence of the biological species, not of a particular like Adam. The two stories do not deal with the same thing in different scales. They deal with different things. Apply a microscope to the text and you’ll see that the pronouns in Genesis 1 are all plural; in Genesis 2, all singular.

This homes in on what it means to say that God makes Adam, and through him makes each and every one of us. At the same time, it points to Abraham’s basis for his revolution. You and I, he and she, are particulars. Your being and mine, his being and hers, can’t be rationalized in terms of those other gods, the gods of Abraham’s father, each of which is a personified expression of some general characteristic or property and all of which together constitute a system whose elements are essentially interdependent. Accounting for my being and yours, his and hers, requires (to put it in the theologized idiom) a god who is a one.

It’s not surprising, then, that, whatever it means, the Bible tells the story of God creating the first man, a particular, after it tells the story of the emergence of humankind, a kind among the many kinds. Abraham’s parents do not create him in the same way that God creates Adam. Abraham’s parents do not impart to him a proper self-identity. The Genesis 1 story tells of the biological origin of men and women. Genesis 2 tells of the category of being that they, alone, belong to. This is the category of which God is the exemplar.

Though few understand that it does, Commandment One of the Ten states this plainly. ‘I am the Lord your [g]od …; you shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:2‑3, Deuteronomy 5:6‑7). Observe that although the Commandments are given to the nation as a whole at Sinai, the pronoun ‘you’ is singular. The number is no mere literary choice. Nor is the contrast between the singular ‘me’ for God and the plural ‘gods’ a reversible, literary, choice. The proposition is that God (the deity who is a one, who isn’t part of a system; of a pantheon, in theological terms) is the principle of individual persons; of her and of him and of you and of me. God is not the deity of non-human creatures, or of the biological species that comprises men and women. They, all of them, are parts of the natural whole. Of (plural) their being the pagan deities are the principles. And so, from what God says one cannot infer a categorical denial that there are other gods. The problem with accepting the other gods is not that they are fictional; the problem is that they cannot do what they are looked to by a worshipper to do.

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I’ll present Abraham’s reasoning more formally by using Plato as an exponent of a view like the Genesis 1 view, which he pretty much is.

On Plato’s analysis, physical objects are (=) spatio-temporal exemplifications of general things. In Plato’s language: reflections in the (inherently non-general) spatio-temporal Receptacle of the (inherently general) Forms. Suppose we have two spheres of the same size, A and B, to each of which ‘red’ is the only other general term to apply. What makes them two? A is here, B is there. The Forms supply the features and characteristics. The Receptacle supplies the numerical difference. If B were here, and A there, there wouldn’t be any difference. All we have here is, in effect, non-general individuality. Particularity is lacking. If A and B are particulars, the two situations are quite different.

Here’s a concrete illustration. We regard our intimates as irreplaceable. Indeed, we regard each and every person that way, though in most of our interpersonal dealings we hover above the level of particularity. The spouse and kids are irreplaceable. It’s a matter of indifference to us which of the carpenters, Tony or Dave, replaces a plank on the deck, just as it is a matter of indifference to us which plank is selected from the pile. The Platonic metaphysical analysantia, general characteristics and spatio-temporality, are unequal to the particular. They are able at best to supply a facsimile, namely, being one of a kind, being the only thing that satisfies some suite of general characteristics.

This categorial deficit of the pagan way of thinking is what Abraham is out to rectify. He introduces a personification of the missing category, God, different from the other gods, who personify what Plato’s Forms express. It’s for this reason that the creation story of Genesis 2 is not just a close-up of what the creation story of Genesis 1 looks at wide-angled. God is present in the world of Genesis 2, through his breath of life; not in the world of Genesis 1, where the species humankind (only) has some features that resemble God’s, e.g. (relative) ubiquity.

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As consequential as the products of these interpretive labours are for scholars of the Bible, the consequences for the devout are more consequential. Their lives are affected. Readers of the Bible, looking at Genesis 2, see a personal deity acting on a lump of earth: moulding it and breathing his life breath into it. The worshipful attitudes of the Bible’s devotees are very much based in this understanding of God’s making. The picture of God in Genesis 2 is however the Bible’s dramatic way of saying something that involves ‘make’ in the sense of the term in ‘the eggs and the flour make the bread,’ not in the sense of the term in ‘the baker makes the bread.’ I quoted God’s words earlier. ‘I will make … you.’ ‘You are made of (unshareable) I-ness.’

The question for men and women that the Bible answers is not ‘Who made you?’ It’s ‘Of what are you made?’ The answer to either question might be something extraordinary. But only the answer to the former question could be an object of reverential attitudes.

Throughout this essay, I use the name ‘Abraham’ for the son of Terah. In fact, the bearer of the name begins life in his father’s house answering to ‘Abram’; ‘Abraham’ is his God-given name. In the insertion of the ‘h’ into ‘Abram’ we have (the point works equally well in Hebrew) a verbal version of God’s breath, which stands for something that is essential to the being of each and every one of us. By renaming himself, Abraham conveys an ontological point. The same linguistic addition is found in the case of the first man, who gets the literal, not just a literary, version of God’s breath. His God-given name is not ‘adam.’ It is ‘ha‑adam.’ Not the general term ‘man,’ but the singular ‘the man.’

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Throughout, I draw upon the New Revised Standard Version translation the Bible. Enuma Elish is quoted from The Seven Tablets of Creation, William King, ed., Luzac, 1902

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Mark Glouberman, now of the Montreal diaspora, first saw the light of day in a flat above Rainbow Sweets on Park Avenue corner Milton. He found an intellectual pot of gold in the Hebrew Scriptures. Glouberman’s most recent book, Persons and Other Things: Exploring the Philosophy of the Hebrew Bible, appeared in 2021. Two earlier installments of what Glouberman refers to as ‘The Bibleism Trilogy,’ also published by University of Toronto Press, are The Raven, the Dove and the Owl of Minerva: The Creation of Humankind in Athens and Jerusalem (2012), and “I AM”: Monotheism and the Philosophy of the Bible (2019).

 

 

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