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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2009
Number 71
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Abraham: A Seminal Personality

By Daniel Grossberg

Abraham: Trials of Family and Faith, Terence E. Fretheim, Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.262 PP.

Abraham: Trials of Family and Faith is a fine addition to the Studies on Personalities of the Old Testament series of the USC Press. The book is an easily readable work, accessible to the student and scholar alike. Thomas E. Fretheim, a seasoned biblical researcher, includes extensive endnotes and a comprehensive bibliography at the end of the book where they serve as resources for the investigator and not as interferences for the more casual reader. A notable merit of this study is the author’s treatment of less-addressed themes alongside more familiar ones. This is no small matter for a researcher conducting significant scholarship on so prominent a biblical personality as “Abraham.”

Conventional biblical scholarship sharply separates the “primeval history” of Genesis 1-11 from the “ancestral history” of Genesis 12-50. The first 11 chapters of Scripture present a broad universal narrative of all of humankind over “the whole earth.” Genesis 12:1-3 brings sharply into focus one individual and his family, from one Mesopotamian village, who is called to be the progenitor of a specific people. Fretheim opens his study, nevertheless, by relating the story of Abraham in Genesis 12-25 with the preceding chapters 1-11, insisting on the universal frame of reference as a key to understanding Abraham.

The Abrahamic narratives became the stories of successive generations of the people of God. Our author seeks an understanding of the genre of the Abraham narratives. The several episodes in Genesis 12-25 depict God as directly engaged in the life of Abraham. “The sheer existence of this family and their ongoing life is a God-generated reality.” (p. 15). Fretheim thus suggests the designation “theological narrative/story” as particularly appropriate for the type of literature of Genesis 12-25. In an insightful close textual reading, our researcher adduces numerous verbal and thematic parallels in several episodes of the Abraham stories and other parts of the Hebrew Bible, especially in the book of Exodus. Abraham, consequently, appears to prefigure Israel’s history. The “theological narrative” designation thus gains even greater importance as it applies also to the nation’s history.

The greater part of Abraham: Trials of Family and Faith treats the role of God’s elected and the “outsider” or the “other” in their varying relationships from interesting perspectives. Among these are the following: Abraham and Sarah, the elected, as they receive divine promises and also Hagar and Ishmael, the “others,” and the promises they receive; the episode of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt (Gen 12:10-13:1) with a concentration on the outsider as posing a danger to the elected; Abraham, Lot and Sodom and Gomorroh (Gen 13:1-18). As a result of his choices, Lot loses his “insider” status and is swallowed up into the culture of Sodom and Gomorroh. “Outsiders may present a threat to the chosen people but those threats are not unrelated to choices that the insiders’ make. Choices can jeopardize blessings.” (p. 69); Abraham as he takes up the cause of Sodom and Gomorroh filled with non-chosen people; and also Abraham and his family as beneficiaries of blessings from outsiders in several encounters with them (e.g., Pharoah in 12:16, Melchizedek in 14:19 and Abimelech in 20:14).

Fretheim devotes a chapter to the narratives dealing with Isaac and closes his study with “Abraham in Memory and Tradition,” a chapter in which he traces the story of Abraham as it appears in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, the Apocrypha, the Pseudepigrapha, the Greek Scriptures and more briefly in the Qur’an.

The only shortcoming this reviewer noted in an otherwise fine volume is the author’s occasional anachronistic vision. Two examples follow: In Fretheim’s discussion of circumcision, he states that a lack of faithfulness to the covenant will lead to severe consequences the male will be “cut off” from his people. Fretheim then states, “Even though women may be included in the covenant community only by virtue of being members of a household where the males are circumcised, it is notable that they are not said to be cut off. It is possible that the covenant promises would continue to be applicable to them.” (p. 43). It is only by a misapplication of the modern notion of equality of men and women to the biblical legal system that Fretheim could say that “it is notable that they [women] are not said to be cut off.” In the Hebrew Bible, women are not addressed in the matters of law. Within the biblical legal system, legislation is made formally only to the male. The second example of anachronistic thinking is in his reference to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorroh as “environmental catastrophe,” “environmental disaster,” “environmental disruption” and “anti-life” and “anticreational” (p. 76-77) This reviewer does not think that these terms clarify the text. They merely introduce foreign issues and sensibilities unknown to the ancients. These points, however, are small ones. The merits of the book are far greater.

Abraham: Trials of Family and Faith is a valuable study of a seminal personality in the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Terence E. Fretheim’s literary and theological sophistication is apparent on every page.

Daniel Grossberg is professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Albany and a contributing editor.

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