Adventures of Abram: Part I

September 28, 2014

Many years pass between the events at Babel and the release of Mumford & Sons’ single. Fewer years pass before another iconic figure takes the biblical stage. We follow the lineage of Shem through many generations until we get to a man called Abram. Abram was one of three brothers (Nahor and Haran being the other two) born of Terah in the land of Ur of the Chalde’ans. Another potentially important observation is that this is the second time in the Bible so far that a wife is mentioned by name. Abram’s wife was Sar’ai, and Nahor’s wife was Milcah. As it turns out, Milcah was none other than Haran’s own daughter. Creepy, but times were different.

Unfortunately, Haran dies young and his son, Lot, is taken in by Abram. Afterwards,  Abram, his wife, his father, and Lot move away from Ur with the intention of moving to the land of Canaan.

It must have looked like providence when they came upon a town called “Haran”, which may be why Abram and his family decided to abandon their quest and settle there (talk about constantly being reminded of your dead brother/father/son though). Regardless, in due time God would present Abram with a new quest to pursue:

“‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation…'” (Gen 12.1-2)

God will probably just lead Abram to the remains of Babel and be like, “Whoa ho! Looky here buddy. I already got you started!”

But seriously. As added incentive, God tells Abram that he will make a name for himself and “bless those who bless [Abram], and him who curse [Abram] I will curse.” (Gen 12.3) So with new purpose Abram accepts God’s quest, uproots his family (despite God’s direct instruction to leave his “kindred”) and heads off for the land of Canaan.

This time Abram actually makes it to Canaan, and when he arrives God declares that the lands before him will be given to the descendents of Abram. The one catch that is glossed over in the story is that there are actually a bunch of Canaanites already living there. This brings up two important points. The first is identifying the people (Canaanites) present in the valley already. If the preceding events in the Bible are to be believed, the current residents of Canaan are descendents of Noah, and not just any descendents. These are the people cursed by Noah after his son (Canaan) saw him naked. Granted, it wasn’t God doing the cursing, but I can’t help but wonder if this is fulfillment of the promise made long before.

The second, and potentially more interesting point about Abram’s land acquisition is its geographic location. When Abram stops in Canaan, he builds his first alter to God at a place called Shechem between the mountains of Ebal and Gerizim. Today, this city is known as Nablus and is in the West Bank. This information was inconsequential until Oxford informed me that Abram, also known as Abraham, is actually the biblical representation of Israel. I found this piece of information interesting given the current climate in Israel-Palestine today. I am woefully under-educated in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I know that a fraction of it involves land and a dispute over who owns what. I find it intriguing that a similar interaction over the same land is taking place in the Bible thousands of years before our modern struggles. Whether or not Abram’s Israel is a reflection of the current Israel and if Canaanites are synonymous with Palestinians, I don’t know. Regardless, the information adds another layer to the already complicated perspectives.

In thanks for His gift of the land of Canaan, Abram starts on an unofficial quest across the land building altars to God. On his way to Egypt, ostensibly to build another altar, two, grim situations present themselves. The first is that there is a severe famine ravaging Egypt. The second is a belief held by Abram that the Egyptians will kill him to free his beautiful wife Sar’ai from the bonds of marriage putting her “back on the suq”. Abram gives no consideration to the first reality to instead plan for the second possibility. At this point, as a reader, I’m not sure what to make of the Egyptians. This could be the first instance of prejudice demonstrated in the Bible as Abram considers the Egyptians to be the type who would kill a man to get at his wife. At the same time, I’m not sure if I should respect the Egyptians for holding the institution of marriage so highly as to think there is no way out but through death. Attempting to avoid the situation altogether, Abram’s grand idea is to travel through Egypt as brother and sister. Because if they would kill a man for his wife, they certainly wouldn’t just take his sister…

At this point, I would have just gone home.

Abram, however, does not seem to question his trip into Egypt despite the two threats facing him. His commitment to his task makes me see him as a sort of missionary, the first of his kind in the Bible. I am further convinced of this when I remember that Abram has been traveling around the country building altars, none of which, surprisingly, were prompted by God. The last we’ve seen of God is when he gave the land of Canaan to Abram at which point Abram started on his mission. Perhaps Abram’s actions are a subtle indicator of how the reader should give thanks to God.

As if on cue, Sar’ai is claimed by the Pharaoh of Egypt soon after she and Abram enter. Fortunately Abram is not left empty handed as he is given “sheep, oxen, he-asses, menservants, maidservants, she-asses and camels” (Gen 12.16) for his wife-sister. Alas, God will have none of it and unleashes plagues upon the Pharaoh’s house whereupon the Pharaoh relinquishes Sar’ai. It is important to note that the Pharaoh does not begrudgingly give up Sar’ai or put up a fight; he simply says, “‘Why did you  not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say ‘she is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife, take her, and be gone.'” (Gen 12.18-19) Here we see the Pharaoh redeem himself and the Egyptian people from the negative stereotype presented by Abram earlier in the chapter.

Strangely, there is no lesson imparted at the conclusion of Abrams sojourn in Egypt. I anticipated some turmoil, where the Pharaoh doesn’t let them leave, won’t give up Sar’ai, or Abram is imprisoned and tortured and ultimately some great lessoned is learned. But no, they just get to go home. It’s like if you watched Titanic, and 3 hours in instead of the boat sinking (spoiler alert), it just docked in New York and everybody went home.

I guess all stories have to end somehow.