Tzemah Yoreh

The Bible we know today is very different from the original draft

In the earlier version, Abraham killed Isaac, there were seven commandments and the Israelites were not slaves in Egypt

June 04, 2021 11:46

There used to be a story in the Bible in which Abraham killed his son Isaac. It is not there anymore.

Neither are many other stories that were once told. In the original Bible, Jacob was the first patriarch. The Israelites were not slaves in Egypt.

There were only seven commandments, no other laws, and Moses made it to the promised land instead of dying in the desert.

My new book, Why Abraham Murdered Isaac: The First Stories of the Bible Revealed, tells these stories. It also explains how and why the Bible changed so radically into what we have today.

For me, it all started with Abraham and Isaac and Genesis 22. In this famous story, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and an angel intervenes at the last second to save him. As you can tell from the title of my book, my research led me to an older, original version of Genesis 22. In this story, the angel does not stop Abraham’s knife but lets it cut through Isaac’s flesh, severing his head — not to mention the connection between Abraham and his grandson, the patriarch Jacob.

More ink has been spilled trying to make sense of the whys of this story than any other story in the Hebrew Bible. I offer a fresh take by using the tools of modern scholarship to connect the particular tale of Isaac’s sacrifice to the larger Abrahamic story cycle, to try and find coherence.

Most academics posit a theory of multiple authors for the Five Books of Moses and suggest that later editors spliced and diced these stories in a process of deletion and rearrangement that was harsher and more invasive than any of the modern era, let alone antiquity. This type of editing does not jive with the textual culture of the ancient world, given the respect they accorded the then-rare written word. As a student, I searched for a theory of composition organic to the time and place in which the Bible was written — ancient Israel of the seventh century BCE.

I found my answer in a version of what Bible scholars refer to as the Supplementary Hypothesis, a theory that has been around in different versions since the early 19th century. In a nutshell, it contends that the Five Books of Moses were composed through a process of successive additions to one original text, a natural process for a culture in which the written word was respected and revelation revered.

Some of what I say in this book has been said by others, of course. I am not the first scholar to “kill” Isaac, but I am the first to tell you why Isaac was killed, and I may be the first to bring Moses to the promised land. And not just that. My research creates coherence among these first stories because these were once only one story.

You may be asking yourself, how do I pull the original Bible out of today’s Bible? Am I making it up as I go along? My toolkit was developed in the early modern period, when professors of the Bible were just beginning to take it apart.

As one goes through the biblical story, one can differentiate between the original Bible and what came afterward, such as the stylistic distinction between racy stories and boring lists, or contradictions such as Isaac being alive versus the implication that he is dead.

Another tool is linguistic distinction. Every person prefers certain words or expressions over others. I, as a Canadian expat, say “excuse me” even when it’s not my fault. The authors of the Bible were the same — they can be identified by characteristic language patterns.

Most importantly, the author of the original Bible and the first editor differed in how they referred to God. The original Bible’s God is distant and austere and lets humans do most of the action, so the original Bible just names him “God”—in Hebrew, “Elohim.” The first editor’s God is Yhwh. Yhwh is a personal name and has a personal relationship with the Israelites he is also very jealous of his reputation, which is of course reflected in the story.

Having explained a little bit about pulling the original Bible from today’s text, let me go back to Abraham’s story. Instead of the dramatic climax of Genesis 22, let’s begin with Genesis 20: Abraham the wanderer arrives in Gerar with his beautiful wife Sarah. This is not a beginning, this is actually the beginning: It is the first time the original author of the Five Books of Moses appears on the scene. How do we know this?

For starters, this source likes to use the name “Elohim” for the deity (most of the earlier Abraham stories use the name Yhwh). The original Bible also focuses on the fear of God as a theme and is an extraordinarily terse storyteller.

In this case, he cuts to the chase quickly, telling us that Abraham presents Sarah as his sister and that the local monarch Abimelech ‘takes’ Sarah. In biblical Hebrew when a man ‘takes’ a woman it implies sexual relations.

There are clearly consequences to these actions, for otherwise why would God threaten Abimelech with death in a dream? This, however, is only the beginning of the dream dialogue between Abimelech and God. Abimelech answers God’s accusation and proclaims that he “did not have sex with that woman”. It is quite an occurrence, to be able to answer our all-powerful accuser in court and win the argument.

This dream dialogue is unique in the Bible. There is literally no other occasion of such give-and-take between the deity and humans in a revelation such as this; it is almost as if Abimelech were on the stand instead of sleeping:

20:4 Now Abimelech had not come near her. He said, “Lord, will you kill even a righteous nation? 5 Didn’t he tell me, ‘She is my sister…” 6 Then God said to him in the dream, “Yes, I know that in the integrity of your heart you have done this, and I also withheld you from sinning against me…”

We now have a contradiction: according to the first verses it is implied that Abimelech had sexual relations with Sarah, but according to the dream dialogue he did not.

How can we solve this? A reasonable assumption in moments such as these is that one part of the story was added on later by an editor. In this case, the best bet is that the dream dialogue was added. Without the dream dialogue, the potential for debauchery is great. In fact, the likely reason for the addition of the dream dialogue in this chapter is specifically to exclude the possibility of sexual relations between Sarah and Abimelech in today’s Bible so that we would have absolutely no doubt who Isaac’s father was.

These are some of the key puzzle pieces to unlock the mystery of the first story of the original Bible.

Rabbi Dr Tzemah Yoreh is leader of The City Congregation in New York

June 04, 2021 11:46

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