Abraham, Defender of the Fledgling Faith
The culture of the Christian West, the culture of the Muslim world and the culture of the Jewish community are, in the final analysis, the cultures of Abraham. Some call them revealed religions — religions with a central hub that turns on an axis of divine revelation, and an outer rim that awaits a final revelation and redemption in the end of days. That might perhaps explain why revelation and redemption sound and unfold so similarly. We frequently hear that it was Abraham who discovered God and spread his teachings and his faith to the ancient world. It is a view shared by philosophy and legend alike.
This is how Maimonides, the rationalist philosopher, a stranger to mysticism, describes him: Because he had been weaned on them, [Abraham] began to find his thoughts wandering. While still young he began to think night and day. He began to wonder how it could be that this wheel was perpetually turning if no one was turning it or driving, since it was impossible that it should turn itself. He had no teacher or instructor.
His roots were in Ur in the Chaldees among foolish idol worshippers, and his father and mother and all the people worshipped idols and he worshipped with them. And his heart began to rebel and seek understanding until he found the true path and came to understand the course of justice out of his own native wisdom. And he knew that there is one God, the Driver of the wheel, the Creator of all, and there is no other God but him. And he knew that all the world had erred, and the thing that caused them to err was worshipping idols and artifacts until their knowledge of truth was lost. And when he was 40 years old, Abraham came to recognize his Creator. And because he recognized and knew, he began to answer questions for the people of Ur of the Chaldees and to administer justice among them and to tell them that this path they were following was not the path of truth. And he smashed the idols and began to inform the people that nothing should be worshipped except the God of the world and that it was to him that one should bow and sacrifice and pour libations, that all future creation would recognize him. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:3)
The key words in Maimonides’ description are recognize, understand, know and inform. Maimonides is true to his teaching: just as prophesy is not an automatic divine bounty that flows into the head of the prophet from above, but rather an intense human spiritual effort from below to which humankind must strive all its days (and a chosen few may even achieve it), so it is with belief. It was Abraham who reached God, not God who found his first believer. So it is with prophesy, and so too, it seems, with the understanding of belief.
But this is not how the Bible tells it. The Bible has a very clear story line that typifies relationships of revelation and concealment between God and his creations, and it differs in its essence from Maimonides’ way of thinking. Almost never did we or our forebears seek him. It was always he, God, eternally in search of man. “Where art thou?” (Gen. 3:9) is the question of questions in his relations with the ancients. With Cain, he asks, “Where is Abel thy brother?” (Gen. 4:9). Likewise with Noah, and with Abraham: “Now the Lord said unto Abram: ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee’” (Gen. 12:1).
In the story of Moses and the bush, it is God who initiates, reaches out, tempts and approaches: “And when the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said: ‘Moses, Moses.’ And he said: ‘Here am I’” (Exod. 3:4).
Beyond the difference in approach between the authentic story of God, who lays his staff upon humankind, and the tradition that departs to have man be the one who lifts himself upward to the spiritual heights and the revelation of belief, it is interesting to try and answer a question on which the Bible is silent: why Abraham? We don’t really know much about the past of Abraham, known in Arabic as al-Khalil, the friend (hence the Arabic name for Hebron, the city where Abraham lived and died: Al-Khalil; my mother, a Hebron native, was known to her Arab friends as the Khalilit, the Hebronite, the friend). Suddenly, in the autumn of his days, he appears on the stage, his powers at their height, and from that moment on the history of human belief is utterly changed.
An uninterrupted reading of the biblical narrative from the chaos of the Creation through Haran, Ur of the Chaldees and the tent encampment in Beersheva makes it clear that Abraham was not some coincidental cultural caprice but the logical outcome of an unfolding progress from creation to belief, a consistent human evolution from the bodily to the spiritual.
What happened in the progress of humanity that allowed for the sudden appearance of belief? In my previous book, God Is Back, I tried to define belief as I understand it:
What is knowledge? When I sit in a room with several people, I know that they are people. Because I see them, hear them and occasionally smell and touch them. But I don’t know what lies beyond the walls of the room. Everything inside the room is knowledge, and everything outside the room is belief. I believe that beyond those walls there are more people and a world filled with happenings. Believe? Yes. Know? No. But belief has a thorn. At the point at which tangible knowledge ends and belief, as it were, begins, doubt begins as well. Maybe there is no world out there. Maybe it’s all emptiness. Maybe the whole universe consists of nothing but the self – me – and there’s nothing else out there. Maybe there’s another world out there with people just like us, or maybe the world was destroyed in a sudden flood and they forgot to mention it on the news. Maybe, maybe, maybe… It turns out that belief and doubt came into the world together, as a package, and everyone has to choose the glasses through which they will view reality. The doubter knows the room and questions what is outside it. The believer knows the room and believes there are many more rooms beyond. Belief and doubt, spoken as one. (Burg, 33)
Humanity’s earthly senses evolved slowly over the course of the generations between Adam and Abraham. When Adam and Eve taste the fruit of the forbidden tree, we understand at once that the sense of taste is working, and from that comes the ability to decide what is tasty and what is not, what is poisonous and what is not, what is permitted and what is forbidden. When God asks Adam and Eve, “Where are you?” the answer is, “I heard thy voice” (Gen. 3:10). Which is to say, the ear is working as well. And when Lamech turns to his wives and pleads, “Give ear to my speech,” we understand that this is not just a matter of hearing but of listening and understanding. As to the sense of vision, the text says explicitly, “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (Gen. 3:7). When Abel brings his fragrant sacrifice with its sweet aroma it becomes clear to the reader that the nose its doing its assigned job. Cain and his descendants, and Noah and his issue after them, proved to us in the previous weeks’ portions that the human race had refined its biological senses to include touching, stroking, designing and building an entire material culture of metal work, music, construction, agriculture and all the rest. When all the senses were well tuned, the time had come for belief that transcends the physical senses. Abraham was thus the natural successor to Adam, Cain and Noah. Once they had laid the sensory groundwork, he was able to harvest the fruits of transcendent understanding. The time of Abraham’s faith arrived when humanity had completed the process of recognizing its senses.
And still the question remains, why is it that in the Torah narrative, God seeks out his believers in each generation, whereas in Maimonides’ telling, the believers, successors to Abraham, are the ones who seek, recognize, know and understand God? Perhaps Maimonides didn’t want to be so radical, but rather was trying to build a bridge between the biblical narrative with its logic, on one hand, and the subversive Aggadah tales of the Midrash which had advanced so far in his time that Abraham had become the one who revealed belief in God to God himself. Here is how the Aggadah put it: To what may Abraham be compared? To one who saw his beloved king wandering in darkened streets. The subject looked out and shone a light on him through a window. The king looked and saw his subject and said to him, now that you have shone light for me through the window, come and light my way. God said to Abraham, now that you have shone light for me from Mesopotamia and its environs, come and shine my way from the Land of Israel. (Gen. Rabba 30:4–5)
I find the courage and daring of the Midrash quite wonderful. The King of kings, God himself, has lost his way, lost his faith, and is wandering in darkened streets. God is outside in the alley while his loving subject sits safe in the comfort of a well-lit home. The role reversal leads logically to this role of the worshipper who is also the revealer, Abraham – the man with the flashlight who manages to lead him out to the main street of town and into the warm embrace of his masses of believers. That is, Abraham not only revealed God, he led him back to the ways of the world. The father of believers showed God how to believe in himself again. Maimonides would not and could not have gone that far and yet remained closely tethered to the biblical text, which he found less than compelling, hence his middle path: on the one hand, humankind’s responsibility for faith that transcends the immediate senses and can lift him to the highest peaks, and on the other hand, the God of Maimonides who never wandered in dark alleys.
In a later portion we will revisit Abraham to note that he revealed belief, but rid himself of his ability to doubt, and this led him astray.