In the first parts of Genesis, the narrative is extremely sparse; there is little characterization. From genealogical trees, characters come into view, do one or two things, and then recede into the background, once more a mere node in a genealogical tree. Now, we enter a new sort of narrative: the lives of the fathers and mothers. The Torah spends about as many words describing the doings and sojournings of a man named Abram (literally, High Father) as it does on the stories of the creation of the heavens and earth, garden of Eden, flood and subsequent adventures of Noah and his sons, and tower of Babel combined. We get enough information about Abram to judge his character in some detail.
Abram, the seminomadic Semite
The first word Yahweh speaks to Abram is, “Go”:
Go, yourself, from your land, from your kin, from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you will be cursed. All families of the earth will bless themselves by you.
Abram’s father Terah meant to journey from Ur of the Chaldees to Canaan, but stopped along the way in Haran and settled there. His people are something in between settled peoples and nomads. They can stay in one city long enough to learn its ways, they can set up camp long enough to bring up children – but they are also ready to move on when they are called to do so by necessity or opportunity. At the age of 75, Abram leaves Haran, completing his father Terah’s intended journey to Canaan:
So Abram departed, as the Lord had spoken to him, and Lot went with him. And Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their wealth that they had amassed, and the soul that they had made in Haran; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.
What do we know about Abram’s way of life? We know that he travels with a substantial household, including flocks of livestock. His household, and Lot’s, are numerous enough that not long after their entry into the land, there is friction between Lot’s shepherds and Abram’s.
Abram suggests they part ways, and offers Lot first choice of direction, promising to go the other way. Looking back to the tower of Babel, the Yahwistic project of keeping lineages straight seems to finally be coming into its own. Yahweh does not intervene here; Abram himself recognizes the need to separate households, and takes initiative to do so.
We also know that Abram and Lot are important – important enough to be noticed by the kings of their time and place.
Before Abram and Lot had to part ways, there was a famine in Canaan. Abram brought his household down to Egypt, hoping to wait out the famine there. En route, Abram worries that his 65-year-old wife Sarai is so irresistibly beautiful that the Pharaoh will have him killed in order to take her as a wife. From this we can infer that Abram’s household is important enough to be noticed by the Pharaoh, but not powerful enough to defend his wife by force. More on this later.
Once Abram is back in Canaan, and parting ways with Lot, Abram gives Lot first choice of land, promising that which ever way Lot goes, Abram will go the other way. Lot chooses to dwell among the cities of the Jordan river valley – in particular, the great city of Sodom, which we are told is a wicked place – but Abram dwells in the more mountainous land to the west, by the terebinths of Mamre, alongside Mamre and his brothers Eshcol and Aner. What is the meaning of these strategies? Does it have anything to do with the wickedness of Sodom?
Almost immediately afterward, we hear of a war. Five cities of the Jordan river valley (among them Sodom, Gomorrah, and Zoar) have rebelled against a league of four Mesopotamian cities that once held them in subjection. Lot, being a local and apparently by now a vassal of Sodom, gets mixed up in this war. The Jordanian league loses, and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fall into tar pits. Lot and much of the rest of the army run away to the mountains, but are captured by the Mesopotamian league. Abram hears news of this. (The text calls him “Abram the Ivri” here, one of the very few places the Torah uses that word. “Ivri” is typically rendered “Hebrew,” but as noted earlier, more likely refers to a way of life than a group of distinct and shared ancestry) He musters 318 fighting men from his own household, and calls in his allies, the three brothers Mamre, Eshcol, and Aner, to take on the Mesopotamian league and rescue his nephew. They win.
Why is Abram able to punch so much above his weight here? Because he chose the hills, and Lot chose the river valley.
The cycle of settlement and the seminomadic balance
From the Indo-Europeans to the Mongols, mobile peoples are famously esteemed as great warriors. Time and again, great urban civilizations have found themselves reliant on – or conquered by – nomadic warlords. “Barbarians,” they are called – and where are the barbarians to be found? At the gates. At the gates of the great capital, ready to sack it.
And yet, the nomads have found themselves, slowly but persistently, pushed out of their lands. The city strategy can produce, not as a side effect the way merchants add value through moving goods from where they are plentiful to where they are scarce, or the way itinerant tinkers can produce occasionally needed services, but primary production, beginning with food. This progress can compound. The compounding is not limited to crop yields, where each generation of plants yields many seeds per seed planted. That process eventually reaches diminishing returns due to land constraints, but in the meantime, people can come up with other complementary things to build, to increase their society’s total yield. Economies of scale and specialization of labor mean that settled civilizations can consistently produce more people, giving them a long-term edge in ability to field armies.
And yet, time and again, people in the great settled civilizations of the world have found their mode of life decaying around them, weakening – among other things – their collective ability to recognize and respond to threats. Eventually, a wave of barbarians comes in and takes control. Sometimes this infuses new blood into an existing system, like the Semites in Sumerian Mesopotamia or the Mongols in China – but sometimes it overruns the system and displaces it, like in Rome.
Why this pattern? The very progress of the cities – specialization of labor, economies of scale – leads to systems of production much larger than a human being. People living inside such a system don’t have to think about how it works in order to get by. Their work becomes routine and specialized, so they become dull specialists. Since things are taken care of for them, they need less ingenuity. They need only play out their role, and they can expect to be taken care of.
Nomads, on the other hand, are constantly encountering new situations – covering new terrain. They live on the strength of their bodies and minds. And they’re good fighters – because adversarial domains are optimized for surprises.
You might think this constant need to adapt would lead to more overall progress, but the problem with progress is that you need somewhere to put it. Nomads are on the move – where would they take their mills? For what purpose would they work fields with the plough or with the hoe, never to reap? So, they become good at whatever their economic niches are (if they trade with cities at all), and learn how to flexibly maintain and mobilize their systems of production.
This is why the household of a minor seminomadic patriarch such as Abram is able to field a credible fighting force, and be a decisive factor in the outcome of a war between great cities.
Nothing, however, guarantees that the great contest between the nomads and the city-dwellers is going to go on forever.
If the urbanizing force ever wins completely, if it gradually grinds the nomads to dust between the gears of the great machine of urban growth, then there will be no one left to think – and an increasingly fine-tuned and denatured society will begin to grind itself into dust. We can see the beginnings of this process in the gradual decay, and increasing fragility and top-heavy profligacy, of the great and stable civilizations of China and Egypt, where this process played out longer than usual before they were overrun.
If the mobilizing force ever wins completely, sacking and laying waste to the final city, then there will be nothing left for them to take. There will be no progress; at most, just a bunch of people on the move, like the hunter-gatherers of old.
Yahweh’s project is to create a people who stably skirt the cognitive boundary between nomads, who think without progress, and farmers, who progress without thinking. Seminomads. The schism between Lot and Abram is one branching in that search process.
Lot seeks out the fertile land about the wealthy cities nearby, reassimilates into those cities readily, and thereby gets tangled up in the great-power politics of his day. This leads to dependency. Abram stays apart, a Hebrew in the hills, and is able to put up a credible fighting force. Abram is closer to the search target.
Abram is sufficiently fastidious about urban entanglements that when the king of Sodom offers him all the spoils, asking for only his people back, Abram declines his share (though he does not stop his allies from claiming theirs), since he was only in it to rescue his nephew.
Perhaps it is because Abram was the sort of person who would stay away from the cities of the plain, that Abram, and not his nephew Lot, was personally called by Yahweh, and brought into a covenant with him.
Sodom and Gomorrah, autonomy and hospitality
Yahweh eventually resolves to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah on account of their wickedness. The way this plays out reveals much about the character of Lot’s and Abram’s strategies.
The embassy to Abram
The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah begins immediately after Abram has circumcised himself and every male member of his household, as part of his covenant with Yahweh. Abram is sitting at the entrance to his tent, resting during the hottest part of the day, when he sees three strangers – among whom, unbeknownst to him, is Yahweh himself. Abram might be forgiven for some lenity towards the ordinary laws of hospitality, given the circumstances; but instead, he leaps to his feet, bows to the strangers, and begs them to stay with him. When they accept, he runs into the tent, tells Sarai to hurry and make cakes, runs to the cattle and orders a calf roasted, and then personally fetches cream and milk to serve his guests. He sets out a banquet before them under a tree, and stands and waits on them as they eat.
Having resolved to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah on account of their wickedness, Yahweh decides that it is only proper to bring Abram into the know, because he’s the chosen progenitor of Yahweh’s chosen people. Abram is skeptical of the justice of collective punishment, and asks Yahweh if he would still destroy a city, if there were fifty righteous people in it. Yahweh concedes that he will not, if fifty righteous people can be found. Abram then bargains him down to forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, and finally ten.
Unfortunately, there are not even ten righteous people in either city, so Yahweh sends along two messengers to warn the only people worth saving – Lot and his family.
The embassy to Lot
When Yahweh’s two messengers (the word, מלאך, also means angel) arrive in Sodom, Lot meets them at the gate of the town. Respected city elders would often sit at the gate of a city to oversee city business, and comings and goings. They say that they are going to spend the night in the public square, but Lot insists that they stay in his house.
While Abram makes his guests the most luxurious meal he can in his more nomadic circumstance, Lot serves them matzot, unleavened bread, the most nomadic food he can make. Lot, the city-dweller, is trying to hold onto the old ways, but these have been reduced to a culinary affectation. Before the dinner is over, Sodomite townspeople of all ages and every part of the city converge upon Lot’s house, demanding that he bring out the strangers “that we may know them.” They mean it in the sexual sense.
Lot is trying to hold onto some of his seminomadic culture. But this man, whose flocks and household were too numerous to travel alongside Abram, is now reduced to a single private household, with not even enough of a fighting force to defend his houseguests from a common mob of gang-bangers.
Lot begs the townspeople to take his daughters instead; hospitality demands that your own household stand between a guest and any harm. But the Sodomites angrily rebuff him, this foreigner who is nowjudging their local folkways, and promise to do even worse to him. The townspeople try to force the door – so the angels miraculously blind them, poetically echoing their city’s blindness.
Strangers enter the city of Sodom, and it sees no long-term interest, no guest-right, nothing but the local custom of indiscriminately predating on them. It took in Lot, an upright man with his own herds and fighting men, and stripped him of his autonomy, reducing him to a mere resident, who could think of no better way to defend his guests than to offer his own daughters to a rape mob. This is the iniquity of Sodom.
After the mob has been neutralized – blind, they have some difficulty finding their prey – the angels tell Lot to flee with his household to a mountain, because every city in the plain is going to be destroyed. Lot, like Abram, bargains with Yahweh to save a city – but unlike Abram, does it for the sake of his own convenience, asking that the nearby city of Zoar be saved, because the mountain is too far away. Yahweh agrees, and Lot flees with his wife and daughters – but not his Sodomite sons-in-law, who refuse to heed the warning.
The angels warn the whole family not to turn back as they flee, but Lot’s wife looks back, and is transformed into a pillar of salt.
Confusion of lineage
After fleeing to Zoar, Lot and his daughters, seeing all the other cities of the plain destroyed, decide to flee to the mountain after all, and hide in a cave. Lot’s daughters, seeing that the cities around them have pretty much been destroyed, and with no other men around to marry, decide to get their father drunk on two consecutive nights so that they can both have procreative sex with him. Both daughters conceive from their father (me-avihen, מאביהן). The elder daughter, who had sex with him first, names her son Moab (מואב), similar to the Hebrew me-av (מאּב) meaning from-father. The younger daughter, who conceived on the second night, names her son Ben-Ammi, meaning Son-of-My-People. These are the supposed ancestors of the Moabites and Ammonites, trans-Jordanian neighbors to the ancient Israelites.
Lot has made too many compromises. His daughters were doing a reasonable thing given the situation, especially if they thought it was their responsibility to repeople the earth, like Noah’s sons – but Lot put them in that situation and he didn’t have to. His line is not extinguished, but it is no longer of interest to Yahweh.
Of course, Abram made some compromises too, in Egypt.
There was a famine in Canaan. Abram and his household went down to Egypt. Abram asked Sarai to pretend to be his sister, lest the Pharaoh kill Abram in order to marry her. The Pharaoh took Sarai as a wife, and gave Abram gifts. The Pharaoh was punished with divine plagues for doing this. He gave Sarai back to Abram and sent them on their way.
Abram and Sarai’s Egyptian sojourn bears a striking resemblance to the Exodus epic, in which the entire people of Israel leave Canaan for Egypt due to famine, are at first well-compensated for their service there, but eventually forced to do hard labor, for which the Pharaoh is punished with plagues until he relents and lets the people of Israel return to Canaan.
We are now in a part of the story dense with foreshadowing of the great story of the Exodus. Noah already prefigured Moses, setting out on his great journey in a bitumen-sealed water-vessel, traveling to a mountaintop during a storm, and subsequently receiving divine law. But the parallels are becoming more explicit and more complete, as though the impact of that great event is rippling backwards in time.
These portents are not limited to analogy; there is also a series of divine promises to Abram, covenants with him, and prophetic dreams.
Covenants, prophecy, and progeny
When Abram is first called by Yahweh at the age of 75, Yahweh promises to make of him a great nation, and to make Abram’s name so great that all the families of the earth will bless themselves by him.
The dust of the earth
Once Abram parts ways with Lot, Yahweh promises Abram all the land he can see, and promises to make Abram’s offspring as uncountable as the dust of the earth.
The stars in heaven
After the war between the Jordanian and Mesopotamian leagues, Yahweh appears to Abram in a vision. Yahweh begins by reminding Abram that his reward will be very great. Abram responds by pointing out that if Yahweh means to make his name great and his descendants as uncountable as the dust of the earth, he might perhaps want to take into account the fact that Abram has no children, such that if things go on as they have been, Abram’s steward Eliezer* the Damascene will be his heir.
Yahweh responds, “That one will not inherit you. Only he that shall come forth from within you shall inherit you.” Yahweh then tells Abram to go outside and look at the night sky, and promises that Abram’s offspring will be as numerous as the stars. He identifies himself as Yahweh who brought Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees to give him this land. Abram asks for a sign that he will inherit.
Covenant of the Parts
At this point, the Covenant of the Parts begins. Yahweh instructs Abram to take a few different kind of animals, cut them in two, and arrange the parts in two matching rows. Abram stands vigil over the carcasses, and as the sun sets for real, he has another prophetic dream. Yahweh tells him that his descendants will be strangers in a land not their own, that they will endure four hundred years of servitude, but that Yahweh will judge the nation that they serve, and they will leave that land with great wealth. Yahweh then reiterates his promise, promising Abram’s descendants a vast expanse of territory, from the Nile to the Euphrates.
Who help themselves
Of course, everyone involved understood that if a 75-year-old husband and his 65-year-old wife had not yet produced a child, they would be unlikely to do so. So Sarai gives Abram her Egyptian maidservant Hagar as a concubine, as was the custom at the time for heads of great families.
This casts some light on the earlier Egyptian adventure. At first glance, Abram’s and Sarai’s behavior in Egypt looks like a case of prostitution via entrapment, colluding with Yahweh. They arrange for the Pharaoh to think that Sarai is marriageable, so he takes her for a wife, and gives Abram the customary gifts, a sort of bride-price. Then, Yahweh reveals to the Pharaoh that Sarai is already married, and punishes him with plagues until the Pharaoh sends them away, richer than they came.
But thinking about the problem of the absence of an heir, Abram and Sarai have to have considered the possibility that the problem was not Sarai, but Abram. If Abram was infertile, then a natural expedient for producing an heir would be to find a man of good stock, and stud him out to Sarai. Arranging for the Pharaoh to take the initiative might have been a face-saving measure. In any event the expedient failed, and ten years later, Sarai (now 75) suggests they try out the obvious alternative.
And Hagar conceives! This has the unfortunate side effect of lowering Sarai’s status, since Hagar, not Sarai, is the mother of the head of household’s presumptive heir. Hagar deprecates Sarai, who complains to Abram.
Sarai is Abram’s partner. She proposed this workaround, so that the couple would have an heir. Abram does not want to leave Sarai in the position of regretting her magnanimity towards him. So he leaves the matter in her hands, giving her back Hagar as a servant. Sarai proceeds to treat Hagar so badly that she runs away.
The annunciation to Hagar
While Hagar is on the road, she encounters an angel of Yahweh at a spring of water. The angel tells her that she will have a son, and will name him Ishmael (Yishma’-El, ישמעאל), meaning God-Heard, because Yahweh heard (Shama’ Yahweh, שמע יהוה) her prayer. Hagar’s offspring will be uncountably numerous. Ishmael will be independent and stubborn like the wild ass of the desert, his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him. A free, wild warrior-nomad type.
The angel instructs Hagar to return to the household of Abram. She does, and bears a son, Ishmael. Abram is now 86, and Sarai 76.
The covenant of circumcision
Thirteen years later, when Abram is 99 and Sarai 89, Yahweh reintroduces himself to Abram as El Shaddai. For the rest of this encounter, the text refers to Yahweh / El Shaddai as Elohim.
Elohim renames Abram Abraham. He then tells Abraham that he will be the father of many nations, and kings, and promises him the whole land of Canaan. He then promises to be as Elohim for Abraham and his descendants. He then tells Abraham to circumcise every male member of his household.
Elohim then renames Sarai Sarah, and says that he will give Abraham a son through her. Abraham falls over laughing (yitzhak, יצחק), and thinks – but does not say (according to the text, he says “in his heart”) – “Will a child be born to a hundred-year-old man? Will Sarah – a ninety-year-old woman – give birth?” But those are not the first words he speaks in reply.
When Abraham has collected himself enough to respond in words, his first words are, “Would that Ishmael might live before you!”
Abraham is a shrewd enough dealmaker to hold his tongue until he has collected his thoughts. At first, he is delighted, albeit incredulous, at the birth of a son through his ninety-year-old wife. But once he thinks through the implications of this, he worries that Elohim might consider Ishmael expendable, if the covenant will be through Sarah’s son after all.
Elohim reiterates that Sarah will bear Abraham a son, whom Abraham shall call Isaac (Yitzhak, יצחק), and he will be the one through whom the covenant will be fulfilled. Elohim reassures Abraham that he has heard Abraham’s wishes regarding Ishmael, has blessed Ishmael, and intends to make him into a great nation, begetting twelve princes. But – Elohim says again – it is Isaac through whom the covenant with Abraham will be fulfilled.
The annunciation to Sarah
Abraham circumcises every male member of his household, including Ishmael, who is now 13 years old. Then, during the hottest part of the day, as he is sitting at the entrance to his tent, three messengers appear. As we have already noted, they are on their way to destroy the great cities of the Jordan river valley, and to rescue Abraham’s nephew, Lot. But first, they have an errand with Abraham.
As Abraham is waiting on them under a terebinth, one of them – possibly Yahweh himself – tells Abraham that he will return in a year, and by that time Sarah will have a son.
Sarah, who was eavesdropping outside the tent (at this point, the text informs us that Sarah was not only almost ninety years old, but also postmenopausal), laughs (titzhak, תצחק), asks if her skin is going to unwrinkle too, and remarks that her husband is old.
Yahweh asks Abraham why his wife laughed and doubted that she, though old, could have a son. He says that nothing is beyond his power, and reiterates that she will have a son in a year’s time. Sarah, frightened, denies having laughed, but Yahweh insists that she did.
Yahweh’s two traveling companions continue on towards Sodom, and Abraham, having recently pled with Yahweh for his son Ishmael’s life, commences bargaining for the lives of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Finally, Yahweh of the Elohim introduces himself. But it is neither as Yahweh, nor as Elohim, nor as El Elyon. Instead, we learn a new name: El Shaddai. What does this name mean? What is the significance of the other renamings here – the renamings of Abram and Sarai?
The most obvious derivation of El Shaddai (אל שדּי) is from the Hebrew word Shadad (שדד), meaning devastator. The problem with that is that it really doesn’t fit the context. I am God the Destructor, my covenant with you and your descendants is eternal, you will have many progeny, circumcise yourself? This seems more like a name appropriate to the Noah story, or shortly before a war of conquest like the one in the book of Joshua. It just doesn’t make sense here. People have tried to explain this derivation as referring to God’s might – God Almighty – but it’s a stretch.
A second commonly proposed derivation is from the Akkadian shadu, meaning mountain. Fittingly, the first thing Abram is said to do after entering Canaan is build an altar on a mountain. There, he invokes Yahweh “by name.”
(Later, as we will see, Yahweh explicitly tells Moses that the name “Yahweh” was not known to his ancestors, and that they knew him by the name El Shaddai. If we take this seriously, it implies that the use of the name Yahweh here is a deliberate anachronism, identifying El Shaddai of Abra(ha)m with the Yahweh known to later readers.)
There is also a Hebrew word, shad (שד), meaning breast, plural shadayim (שדים). God of the Breast. Jacob’s deathbed blessing to his twelve sons near the end of Genesis links El Shaddai to the fertility meaning:
From the God of your father, who shall help you; and Shaddai (שדּי), who shall bless you with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies below, blessings of the breasts (shadayim, שדים), and of the womb.
I am not sure if the “mountain” and “breast” roots are etymologically related, but it seems plausible that they would be, through some root meaning like mound. El Shaddai, God of the Life-Giving Mounds.**
Finally, there’s sadeh (שׂדה), meaning a field, whether a cultivated field, or a hunting-ground or wilderness.
God of the Fertile Mound seems most plausible to me. A mountain is a mound of receptive, life-giving earth. A mountaintop is where you go to receive the law. A mountaintop is where you take refuge from a flood. And a mountaintop is where the feminine earth and the masculine storm can touch each other, and create life.
While we are discussing the altars Abram built, the second altar he builds is at the terebinths of Mamre, where he moved after parting ways with Lot.
After Abram defeated the Mesopotamian league, he met the king of Salem, whose name was Malchizedek (מלכי–צדק), or My-King-Is-Justice. Malchizedek is a priest of El Elyon, the Canaanite high god, and blesses Abram in the name of that god, “maker of heaven and earth […] who has delivered your foes into your hand.”
After this, the king of Sodom offers Abram the spoils of war. Abram’s reply begins, “I lift my hand up to Yahweh El Elyon, the maker of heaven and earth.” This somewhat complicates the El Shaddai story, as Abram is clearly identifying his personal god with El Elyon. Obviously, this might just be for political convenience, or perhaps a casual syncretism was customary at the time.
Yahweh is the Elohim
Immediately afterwards in the text comes the promise that Abram’s descendants will be like the stars in heaven, followed by the covenant of the parts. In this interaction, Abram addresses his god directly, twice, by name. But, what name? The text is unclear.
Usually, where the proper name Yahweh appears in standard printed copies of the text, it appears with no vowels (יהוה). But here, Abram addresses him, twice, as אֲדֹנָי יֱהוִֹה. The first word, Adonai (אֲדֹנָי), is straightforward – it means “my lord.” The second word has the letters of Yahweh, but the vowels of Elohim (אֱלֹהִים). This indicates that while the name Yahweh is written here on the ceremonial Torah scroll, as part of the full phrase “My Lord Yahweh,” it is traditionally read aloud during the Torah-reading ceremony as Elohim, as part of the full phrase “My Lord Elohim.”
However, Jews never say Yahweh’s proper name when reading the Torah aloud. Instead, Jews refer to the name indirectly, saying “Adonai,” or “My Lord.” So to the Jewish ear, “Adonai Elohim” sounds like it means “Yahweh Elohim.”
What is it, this stitching together of these cosmic and national names of god? Why is it so important as to coincide with the most dramatic covenant with Abram, even to the point of nearly overwriting the actual name by which Abram supposedly knew his god?
Jews still hear the echoes of this stitching together, in living practice. Every year, on the great day of repentance, Yom Kippur, at the final service, when the gates of heaven are about to close, and the fates of all the congregation of Israel are about to be decided for the next year, what are the last words to rise towards heaven before the sounding of the great Shofar, the ceremonial ram’s horn?
Adonai Hu Ha-Elohim. This time, “Adonai” does stand in for Yahweh: יהוה הוא האלהים. Yahweh is the Elohim. Over and over, Jews in congregations around the world chant this final affirmation. Yahweh is the Elohim. Someone thought that this was important enough to be the last sentence spoken on the holiest day of the year. Yahweh is the Elohim. But what does this mean?
In El Shaddai’s dealings with Abra(ha)m, we see mostly local things. Comings and goings, specific lands promised, covenants with particular individuals. Battles and alliances. Nothing extraordinary for its time. And yet, from the beginning of this book of Genesis, we have been going back and forth between very different perspectives. There is also the story of the Elohim, of the fundamental nature of human existence. And the story of Yahweh, the great winnower, searching through generations for his chosen people. The covenant with Abram is local, but we are told that it leads to something cosmic in impact. That the process that promotes Abram above his peers is one with the right to say, “You see those stars, in the heavens? Each one belongs to one of your descendants.”
Elohim – The basic cosmic order in which the story plays out. The nature of gods.
Yahweh – The search process. The searcher.
El Shaddai – The Abrahamic content of the search process. The personal god of Abraham.
We will not get to the end of this story before we get to the end of the Bible. And, of course, wishing does not always make it so. But I hope to show that this is, though not the record of a complete success, at least the record of a credible and ongoing attempt to inherit the stars in heaven, by being the sort of thing that can listen to them.
Abraham and Sarah
But let us return to the mundane portion of our story. As El Shaddai instructs Abram (Av-Ram, אברם, meaning High Father) in the covenant of circumcision, he renames him Abraham (Avraham, אברהם), “for I have made you father of a multitude (Av-Hamon, אב–המון) of nations.” (Linguistically, “raham” is most likely simply a related variant of “ram,” that is present in other Semitic languages but not in Hebrew – making “Abraham” sound less like a straightforward phrase to the Hebrew ear, and more like a proper name.)
El Shaddai then tells Abraham that his wife is not to be called Sarai, but Sarah. Sarai might mean “my princess,” or might simply be an archaic form of the word “princess.” Sarah plainly means “princess.” Her relation to the covenant is no longer through her partner, but she herself brought forth into the world Isaac, through whom the covenant is to be fulfilled.
Having been clearly instructed that the covenant will be fulfilled through Sarah’s progeny, Abraham and Sarah try once more to arrange for a king to impregnate Sarah. They journey to Gerar, in the land of the Philistines, a commercial people. Their king’s name is Abimelech, which means My-Father-Is-King. He was perhaps named with more paternal pride than foresight. Abraham repeats his Egyptian strategy, telling Abimelech that Sarah is his sister. Abimelech sends for her to marry her.
This time, Elohim intervenes before the king has a chance to touch Sarah, warning him in a dream that she is Abraham’s wife. Elohim also shuts every womb in Abimelech’s household. Abimelech complains to Abraham, pays him to go away, and allows him to settle wherever he wants in Abimelech’s land. Abraham prays to Elohim, who unseals the wombs of Abimelech’s household.
The birth of Isaac
Now that Abraham and Sarah’s mundane remedies have been completely exhausted, Sarah finally, miraculously conceives, and bears Abraham a son, whom they call Isaac (Yitzhak יצחק), He-Will-Laugh, named after the laughter of incredulity and the laughter of joy with which they greeted the news of his coming, named also in accordance with the command of their god. Abraham is now one hundred years old, Sarah ninety. Abraham circumcises Isaac on the eighth day in accordance with the covenant, and Sarah says, “Elohim has made laughter (tzehok, צחק) for me; whoever hears will laugh (yitzhak, יצחק) for me.” The baby Isaac thrives, and on the day of his weaning, Abraham celebrates with a great feast.
But then Sarah sees the son Hagar had borne to Abraham, joking – making others laugh (meztahek, מצחק). She is reminded of Isaac’s rival, the other claimant to the firstborn’s inheritance, the other reason for joyous laughter at the production of an heir: Ishmael. Sarah demands that Abraham send him away.
The expulsion of Ishmael
Abraham is very distressed, but Elohim tells him to send away Ishmael and Hagar, promising that Ishmael will live to be the father of a great nation. Abraham wakes up early in the morning to send off Hagar and Ishmael with bread and water. They depart, into the desert around Beersheba. But they exhaust their supplies before they find a water source. Hagar, not wanting to watch her fourteen-year-old son die of thirst in front of her, lets him rest beneath a tree, walks several bowshots away, and weeps. Elohim sends an angel to call Hagar, telling her to return to her son, promising her that he will live to become a great nation, and showing her a nearby well. She refills her waterskin and beings it back to Ishmael. Ishmael grows up in the desert of Paran to become an accomplished archer, and his Egyptian mother takes an Egyptian wife for him.
It is easy enough to understand why Abram was distressed. He had to choose between his wife’s continued unhappiness, or the expulsion of Ishmael and his mother. But there’s another reason Abraham might have been distressed here.
In the religious practice of the time and place, it was not uncommon to give up your firstborn son as a sacrificial offering, especially if you were trying to do something interesting like start a new nation.
The specter of child sacrifice haunts the whole story of Isaac. When Abraham is first told that the covenant will specifically be through Sarah’s progeny, his first words are to plead for Ishmael’s life. He is worried that Ishmael, his first firstborn son, of Hagar, is to be a sacrificial object. This is perhaps why Abraham is so eager to get Ishmael out of the way, that he sends Ishmael and Hagar out first thing in the morning.
But with Ishmael safely out of the way, and Isaac the promised fulfillment of the covenant, Abraham is finally clear of the horrible prospect of sacrificing his firstborn to this newly revealed god, in order to found a great nation. The child Isaac thrives, and grows to the age of speech.
And then comes the call, from Elohim.
The binding of Isaac
“Here I am.”
“Take, please, your son, your only one, the one you love – Isaac. And go to the land of Moriah, and bring him up there as an offering, upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you.”
Abraham is well over a hundred, his wife well over ninety, and the postdiluvian years of the sons of Adam are only 120. El Shaddai promised that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in heaven, as uncountable as the dust of the earth, and that all this would happen specifically through Isaac. But now, in his aspect as Elohim, he has told Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice. The covenant is to be fulfilled through Isaac, not as the personal forbear of this people as countless as the dust of the earth, as numerous as the stars of heaven – but as a sacrificial offering.
And Abraham goes. Abraham, who pled for the life of his son Ishmael. Abraham, who argued with Yahweh for the lives of the people of city of Sodom. Abraham, who tried every stratagem he could to produce this heir. He has received a direct order from the god of his covenant. So he simply and silently goes. He brings a donkey to carry supplies, wood for the sacrifice, and two young men from his household. And he brings Isaac. What were they thinking? What was Sarah thinking?
On the third day of travel, they reach the mountain. The two other men and the donkey are left behind, Abraham has Isaac carry the wood for the sacrifice, and Abraham himself carries the knife and the equipment to light the fire.
On the way, Isaac addresses his father.
“Here I am.”
“Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?”
“Elohim will find the lamb for the offering, my son.”
When they arrive at the place, Abraham builds an altar, arranges the wood, and binds his son on top of it. He takes the knife in his hand, to slaughter his son. Isaac, the fulfillment of the covenant. Abraham is fully prepared to cut his own son’s throat, see the stars in heaven bleed out onto the cold rock, and then light it all on fire as an offering, because that is the way of the gods. And Isaac is silent.
Yahweh, in his personal aspect as El Shaddai, god of the fertile mound, god of the covenant, has promised Abraham a great nation, through Isaac. But Elohim, the cosmic god, insists that you cannot do things of cosmic importance, you cannot step beyond the bounds of tradition to inherit the stars, unless you are willing to stake everything that is most precious to you.
Better writers than I have contemplated this moment – the impossible moment where Abraham trusted in the god who told him to destroy precisely that through which the covenant was promised, to betray precisely the parental love that made the covenant a thing of value. This is what it means to have faith – to see no way of resolving your difficulty, and yet continue to follow the principles of right action as best you can, trusting the process to get the right answer, even if you do not see how. For meditations on this moment, I recommend Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.
But I – I am concerned with the moment right after – the moment of redemption. For Yahweh, the selector, does not permit Abraham to kill his son. Instead, he sends an angel, who calls out from heaven:
“Here I am.”
“Do not send your hand against the lad, nor do anything to him, for now I know that you fear Elohim, since you have not withheld your son, your only one, from me.”
Abraham looks and sees a ram caught in a thicket by its horns, and offers it in place of his son. The angel then says that because Abraham has not withheld his only son, Yahweh will increase his offspring like the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore, that they will inherit the gates of their enemies, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him, because he listened to the voice of Yahweh.
Redemption of the firstborn
To the modern reader, the story of the sacrifice of Isaac appears to be something of a sick joke played by God on Abraham. God appears cruel, to ask this horrible thing of a father, and Abraham monstrously cold to be willing to do such a thing to his son. Things look somewhat different if you remember that we are reading the story of how we came to have that attitude in the first place.
The modern attitude towards child sacrifice is one of horror. It seems unimaginably cruel to kill your own child. We wonder how people could have been so heartless, so unfeeling, so wicked. But we modern heirs to the Abrahamics should pay careful attention when our culture’s founding text seems to take it as a matter of course that sacrificing the child for the sake of the parent is a thing any one might be tempted to do. When Moses gives the law to the children of Israel, child sacrifice is not merely retired as no longer necessary – it is forbidden as an abomination.
The Canaanites passed their children through the fire for Moloch, or so we are told. But this was not unique to them. The sacrifice of children is common enough to be worth thinking through its social function.
The temptation of child sacrifice
Consider a case from another founding culture of the West, the Greeks. On the way to Troy, king Agamemnon’s fleet is becalmed, because a goddess is angry at him. To appease her, he sends for his daughter, Iphigeneia, and sacrifices her. Why?
Agamemnon’s fleet is becalmed. After a while, his soldiers are not only impatient, but hungry, and perhaps ill. With the loss of momentum, and plenty of time to reflect, they begin wondering why exactly they are putting their lives on the line, for Agamemnon’s war aims, which are at best very indirectly connected to anything concerning their well-being. What’s more, Agamemnon has comparatively little at stake personally. Regardless of the outcome, many soldiers will die, though more will die if the war goes poorly. However, Agamemnon will almost certainly be fine. Others are bearing the misfortunes of circumstance, to protect the executive, vital for any war effort. This is fine for necessary wars, and Agamemnon has called upon the honor-bond of his allies’ loyalty – but they may begin to wonder whether perhaps he is exploiting that loyalty for profit.
But if the king has sacrificed his own child to help his people win the war, then that complaint is somewhat less tenable. It doesn’t improve the external situation, of course; there is no plausible way it could do that, since there are not in fact divine agents who can alter the weather and can be appeased by a sacrifice. But it improves the morale situation. And since nations live and die on their ability to coordinate large numbers of people effectively, morale is their lifeblood.
It is not necessary that any individual soldier privately believe that the sacrifice will be efficacious in changing the winds. All that is necessary is that they believe that the king believes it, and is not mad to do so. Or, perhaps, it is even enough that it is not common knowledge that the king disbelieves. Once the king has made this sort of vital, essential sacrifice, it is much more difficult to make the argument that his relationship towards his people is exploitative. (The sacral nature of such measures has the additional benefit to the king of not being a concession extracted from the king by the people, so he does not go down the slippery slope towards democracy.)
If, as was often customary for animal sacrifices, the people ate the meat from the human sacrifice in such circumstances, then how much stronger the effect. Far from having no stake in the dangers of the war you are fighting, the king fed you his child in order to placate the gods on your behalf. Your living body now incorporates a receipt for this unpayable debt of honor – or perhaps payable by staking your own life on the success of the venture, which is all he has been asking for the whole time.
Of course, Agamemnon sacrificed one daughter, while another daughter, and a son and heir, stayed safe at home. It is far more powerful to sacrifice your sole heir. In that case, you are staking your entire dynasty on surviving the current crisis, and living long enough to produce another heir, as Abraham is asked to do, when he is over a hundred years old. This is powerful magic.
Yahweh faces a difficult situation here. Among other things, he wants to redeem his chosen people from the equilibrium favoring child sacrifice. But he does not want to select for shirkers, who would be unwilling to make similarly grave sacrifices if it were the right thing to do.
Proof of work
After the birth of Isaac, but before the call to sacrifice him, Abraham has another brief encounter with Abimelech, and his general Phicol. Abimelech has observed that Abraham’s presence in his territory is likely to be a long-term, dynastic one. He wants to make sure he is on good terms with this powerful seminomad, so he asks Abraham to swear not to betray him, or his son or grandson. Abraham is agreeable to this, but takes the opportunity to complain about a well his men dug, that Abimelech’s men seized. Abimelech is happy to recognize Abraham’s claim to the well, but Abraham sets aside seven ewes from his flock, to make this a covenant. Thus, the well is called Beersheba, which means well-of-seven.
Why was it important to set aside seven ewes? Why was it similarly important to cut apart several animals for the covenant of the parts? Why does Abraham have to circumcise every male member of his household? And why does Abraham have to sacrifice his son?
Because talk is cheap.
Contemporary mages are hard at work transforming the mathematical science of secretkeeping and secure message transmission into a form of currency. A key component of such schemes is a public ledger of transactions, a copy of which is maintained by each participant. Holdings of such a currency exist as records on the corresponding public ledgers. The mathematical art of secretkeeping has given us a way to sign a transaction moving money from one’s own account to someone else’s, that is easy for anyone to verify was signed by the sender, but prohibitively difficult for anyone else to forge.
By the rules of construction of the ledger, whoever adds a page to it is credited some amount of the corresponding currency. This is only useful if their page is appended to most everyone else’s ledger as well, so there is an incentive to append things to the most popular ledger – usually the longest valid one.
The problem here is that anyone could create a lot of accounts under their control, to alter which transactions get picked up by the public ledger, thus enabling some kinds of fraud. The paradigmatic case is one in which A signs a transaction transferring money to B in exchange for some hard-to-recover good. Later, A promotes an alternative version of the ledger that does not include that transaction, thus recovering the money “sent” to B. If there is not a similarly sized effort to promote an honest ledger, what is to stop the vast majority of participants from hedging their bets and maintaining both ledgers?
The solution is called “proof of work.” The process of creating each valid ledger page involves an expensive and otherwise useless computation. As pages accrue on the ledger, it quickly becomes prohibitively expensive to construct an alternative ledger faster than everyone else is extending the main one.
Likewise, the sacrificial portion of a covenant alone might not do anything. But, in a system with some incentives to truthfulness, a custom of irreversibly burning valuable resources for important transactions can help mitigate the “cheap talk” problem. There are only so many bodily mutilations Abraham can perform on himself, and circumcision is a particularly unique and costly one, so while it does not prevent him from breaking faith later, it suggests that he is not hedging his bets. Likewise, by setting aside seven ewes, Abraham has indicated that he is spending down a scarce, valuable resource to press his claim on the well, and mark his own promise not to betray Abimelech or his descendants.
Proof of stake
The problem with proof of work is that it requires ongoing, expensive sacrificial offerings to keep processing transactions. Many advocate an alternative called proof of stake. In both proof of stake and proof of work, many participants are simultaneously working on constructing the next page of the ledger, and only one will be credited for each page. In proof of work arrangements, the rate at which you can write valid ledger pages – and thus, your chance of being credited for the page you are working on – depends on the rate at which you are making sacrificial offerings of computation. In proof of stake arrangements, the rate at which you can write valid ledger pages is proportional to the amount of currency you already hold according to the ledger.
The advantage of proof of stake is that while fraud stays expensive – to buy a majority of the decisionmaking power, you would have to buy a majority of the currency – the cost of a successful attack does not correspond to a large ongoing defensive expenditure in the absence of an attack. This can be likened to the difference between a standing army, in which each soldier’s worth of fighting capacity represents one fewer person engaged in productive work, and a reserve army, in which a country’s total defensive capacity may be a large multiple of the ongoing resources thereby consumed.***
Yahweh’s final test of Abraham is a conversion from a proof of work protocol to a proof of stake protocol. Abraham stakes everything on his faith that the god he is following is the correct one – you can’t just sacrifice your firstborn to each god until you find the one that works out. He depends entirely on the judgment of this god, for his plan to work out. But because he picked the right god, the god of long and valid ledgers, he got his son back.
This puts Jews in the curious position of being the descendants not only of a founder who performed the powerful magic of sacrifice of the firstborn, but also of his firstborn son, who performed the powerful magic of willingly going up to the altar as a sacrifice. Thus, nowadays, when even animal sacrifices are forbidden to Jews in the absence of a Temple, human sacrifices forbidden even when there was a temple, Jews invoke the memory of Abraham and Isaac in times of crisis, reminding Yahweh: Remember to credit us with the merit of the fathers. When you tested us, we gave you literally everything.
But in what way is Yahweh the right god? What made Abraham so sure that El Shaddai was the one?
Let the right one in
The details of the relationship between El Shaddai and Abraham are not recorded in the bible. But we can make some inferences. We can make inferences from Yahweh’s care for the sons of lesser branches of the search tree, who were not his chosen, but had honestly participated in the search nonetheless. And we can make inferences from the stern prohibitions against child sacrifice – and other destructive rituals – in the later books of the Torah.
The real answer is that everyone is always staking everything on who their god is. But most of us are in denial about it.
Child sacrifice in modernity
In Greek legend we have the gruesome scene of Cronos devouring his children, to prevent them from rebelling against him, from taking over some of the resources that once were his. This seems fantastical and grotesque. But how foreign is it?
Parents nowadays regularly project their expectations and narcissistic fantasies onto their children. Modern adults hold off on having children – which is itself a sort of preemptive child sacrifice – in order to enjoy the mobile, unrooted lifestyle to which they have been acculturated, or stave off the poverty in which they would otherwise find themselves, trapped in our immiserating suburban infrastructure and regulatory environment in which having children at all has become a full-time job.
The sacrifice of children for the sake of perpetuating the parents’ power and wealth is not at all an alien thing, when we look closely. I myself am guilty of this, as a childless and unmarried adult. I too have held off on starting a family, in the hopes of building a context where I can bring up children in full accordance with my values. I too am staking the entire next generation of my line on my god coming through for me by unspecified means**** – and I’m an atheist.
It is not softness of heart that protects children from their parents, unless a very particular softness of heart has been carefully and diligently inculcated. It is not weakness of will that saves the children. The Abrahamics – which term includes the whole of the West, by cultural lineage – reject child sacrifice, but not merely because we have not the stomach for it. We do not have the stomach for it because many generations ago, we received the revelation that it is an abomination. It is against life. And being against life, it is against the Law, which is the Law of Life.
The life of Sarah
After returning home, Abraham is informed of genealogical developments in his family back in Ur of the Chaldees. His brother, Nahor, had children by his wife Milcah. Eighth and last was Bethuel, who had a daughter, Isaac’s future wife: Rebecca. Abraham and his party return home to Beersheba.
The next thing we learn is the lifespan of Sarah: one hundred and twenty-seven years. She died in Kiryath-Arba, in Hebron. Abraham travels there to mourn for her.
Kiryath-Arba is fairly far from Beersheba, where we are told Abraham was still based. We can conjecture, then, that Sarah was not merely a fixture of Abraham’s domestic life, but managed her own portion of the household, which included substantial independent travel, perhaps with flocks and fighting men of her own. She does not appear at all in the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, even though she would surely have been consulted, had she been present, given Abraham’s prior practice; this suggests that she was already away on business.
Sarah was not so prominent in our story as Abraham – his was a special relationship with his god – but Genesis mentions her at all, and Genesis is hardly striving for gender-balanced representation.
Even in as small a thing as the practice of hospitality towards three unknown strangers, we see what sort of a partnership this was. Sarah, at the age of eighty-nine, takes orders from Abraham, not because he is the master and she the servant, but because they are made of the same stuff, and people whose souls are made of the same stuff can pass orders back and forth as equals (Sarah took the initiative in offering Abraham a concubine to produce an heir), much as one part of a person’s soul may give orders to another, with no question of domination. Abraham does not give orders in order to sit at his leisure while others wait on him and his guests. Rather, once he knows that his trusted partner Sarah is taking care of the cakes, he rushes along to take care of the next tasks, procuring a roasted calf and personally fetching milk and cream.
Through the whole story it is clear that she is not merely Abraham’s chosen mate, but his partner in all ventures, even the venture of procuring a dynastic heir by extraordinary means, forgoing a biological connection to one or the other parent. A princess in her own right, who beds kings, eavesdrops on Yahweh and his angels, and shares the outlook of the chosen one of Yahweh, responding identically to the annunciation of their trueborn son: laughter, and incredulity, because they are both old.
Perhaps Sarah died upon receiving the news that Abraham had gone to offer up her firstborn and only son, as a sacrifice to his god. If so, then Isaac was about thirty-seven years old at the time of the offering.
In any event, Sarah is the first of the mothers and fathers of the Israelite nation to die, and Abraham, after mourning, goes about looking for a proper burial ground. The local landholders offer to give him a plot for Sarah in any of their ancestral burial grounds – perhaps in the hopes of establishing an unequal, patronage relationship – but Abraham insists on buying land outright, for the substantial quoted price of four hundred shekels. In the presence of the children of Heth, Abraham buys from the local landowner Ephron the field of Machpelah, which faces the territory of Mamre, where he sojourned after first parting ways with his nephew Lot. In that field, there is a cave. In that cave, he buries Sarah, first princess of El Shaddai’s chosen.
Princess, of the miraculously fertile womb that brought forth her son Laughter into the world, is herself planted in the ground, because the dynasty of High Father means to stay in Canaan for good.
The life of Abraham
Abraham is, before anything else, a seminomad. Willing to uproot himself and his household from a great city in order to seek a greater destiny, he nonetheless sojourns near the great cities of his time and place when he needs to.
He respects the laws of hospitality among the people of his kind, neither exploiting his military capacity to overthrow the kings in whose territory he sojourns, nor neglecting the strangers who appear outside his own tent. He is generous and forgiving in conflict, allowing Lot first choice of roaming grounds, and rescuing him from bad allies.
His military prowess required substantial physical courage, which was complemented by a magnanimity which extended to those who were not his kin. When he thought it was right, he was willing to stand up to Yahweh himself, not only to protect his son Ishmael, but a city of strangers. His sense of justice revolted at the callousness of collective punishment.
And what of his likely mercenary work? This is inherently adversarial, and not the sort of thing one would wish to build a world on. But there are two kinds of mercenary, the professional and the occasional. The one makes a living primarily off of mercenary work, like the Renaissance mercenaries whom Machiavelli despises in favor of citizen-soldiers. This one is a specialist in a system. Like Lot, he has no independent place in which to stand upright, and depends for his virtue on the virtue of whatever lord happens to have money and power. The other kind makes a living elsewise, but in a way that makes their household fit for occasional fighting. This second second can be righteous, so long as they make sure they have a place where they can stand upright, and are willing to do so.
If anything, Abraham seems excessively skeptical of cities. Twice, he lies to great kings to save his life, at the expense of Sarah’s autonomy, and twice he turns out to be excessively pessimistic, extracting wealth from them because they were more honorable than he thought.
The life of Abraham is sufficiently productive – both materially and cognitively – to be promising, and sufficiently stable not to be clearly self-destructive within a single generation. He is able to cooperate at least with those like himself, and a world full of Abrahams would clearly enrich itself, and learn, and grow.
But the instrument is still too imprecise to inherit the stars on behalf of human flourishing, and the search is not yet complete.
* Eliezer, אליעזר, means My-God-Is-Strength. Ezer, עזר, means strength or structural support, but is also etymologically related to the word vizier, so Abram’s steward’s name can also be rendered My-God-Is-Vizier.
** As far as I can tell, the main argument for El Shadad, God the Destructor, over El Shadayim, God the Breasts, is that Shaddai has a doubled daled (dd/דּ rather than d/ד), corresponding to the two daleds of Shadad (שדד) rather than the one of Shad/Shadayim (שד/שדים). That can’t be breasts, don’t you see it’s a double-D?
*** The disadvantage of proof of stake is that it is incomplete; if someone tries to promote a revised ledger that rewrites transaction history, participants have an incentive to participate in both ledgers instead of picking a side, since writing a ledger page is no longer expensive. There are plausible measures to mitigate this, involving a combination of punishing participants for maintaining multiple ledgers, and arranging things so that the same participants will win the valid ledger page lottery on both branches of the fork. Vitalik Buterin, the creator of Ethereum, has written some very clear articles on this topic.
**** Writing this is part of my strategy for bringing this about. If I can bring together enough people who understand the problem, to work out a shared understanding of how we can live together with integrity and regain the social capacity to make decisions together with foresight, then I trust that we can engineer a safe environment for children, even within the death cult that our society is gradually becoming. And if we do that, our children will be strong and free.