Abraham is recognized as the father of three of the world’s largest religions. He is also a contemptible ass-kisser and a loathsome coward. He is a terrible husband and a horrible father. But – like Noah, he did whatever God commanded of him, no questions asked.
In my view, following God’s commands does not make you a good person. Those in the Bible who were eager to follow every command without thinking about the consequences, are also those who show the basest human qualities, such as fear, vengeance and selfishness.
By the time God gets to Abraham (in my theory of God’s developing education of free will), He’s learned a few things about human nature. No longer can he command, threaten, or test humans into doing his bidding. He has recognized that humans act out of their own self-interests. They ask “what’s in it for me?” God is approaching the idea of barter or transaction – I’ll rub your back if you rub mine; an idea that will eventually take the form of the covenant; a binding legal document wherein each party is expected to provide certain services to the other.
And so, when God approaches Abraham, he makes some big promises to close the deal:
“Leave your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a country which I shall show you; and I shall make you a great nation, I shall bless you and make your name famous; you are to be a blessing!” (Genesis 12).
Would Abraham have been as quick to obey God if he hadn’t been promised fame and fortune? We’ll never know.
Selling his wife for cattle
Abraham made it down to Egypt to escape a famine in his country. When he was there he said to his wife, Sarai:
“Look, I know you are a beautiful woman. When the Egyptians see you they will say, “That is his wife,” and they will kill me but leave you alive. Therefore please tell them you are my sister, so that they may treat me well because of you.” (Genesis 12:11)
Sarai was taken to the Pharaoh’s harem, and Abraham was “treated well because of her and received flocks, oxen, donkeys, men and women slaves, she-donkeys and camels.”
Nowhere does the text imply that God commanded Abraham to save his own neck by selling his wife into prostitution for slaves and farm animals. It seems to have been only his own cowardice which led to an act which – in most periods of human history and even within the contexts of Christian morality – is strictly vile.
Marriage is supposed to be Sacred Unto God. And even if it isn’t, human ideals about romance, righteousness, love and nobility demand that a man stand up and protect his wife’s virtue. How can Abraham be morally excused?
Interestingly, God punishes the pharaoh with plagues for sleeping with another man’s wife, even though the Pharaoh had no idea she was married. “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’ so that I took her to be my wife?” (Genesis 12:18) This proves that the God of the Old Testament has no idealistic beliefs in universal morality: he will protect his own at any cost, to the detriment of all others.
Luckily, when Abraham was thrown out of Egypt, he got to keep all of the stuff Sarai earned for him in the Pharaoh’s bedroom. He was “very rich in livestock, silver and gold” – making him possibly the richest pimp in Old Testament history.
He earns a name for himself winning a few minor military skirmishes, and God continues to feed him vague promises like “I will give you a very great reward”; around this time God made a covenant with Abraham to give a lot of land (Israel) to Abraham’s descendants. (This is the covenant upon which the Jewish people base their ownership of the land of Israel).
However, Abraham starts to complain about not having any children to continue his line. He sleeps with Sarai’s Egyptian slave-girl Hagar (two more strikes against his moral fiber: sex with children and sex with his own slaves) and Hagar conceives.
Hagar became a little too confident towards her mistress because she was carrying the master’s son – so Sarai requested permission to remind the wench of her place. Abraham said “The slave-girl is at your disposal. Treat her as you see fit,” and so Sarai beat the pregnant girl so badly that she ran away. God takes Abraham’s side of course and tells her to go home and “submit” to her mistress, (more strikes against the moral fiber of God.)
Meanwhile, God is slowly adding clauses to his covenant. In the beginning he was careful to promise much and ask little. But when Abraham was 99 years old, God demands a little more from Abraham’s side – a foreskin.
“Whether born within the household or bought, they must be circumcised. My covenant must be marked in your flesh as a covenant in perpetuity. The uncircumcised male, whose foreskin has not been circumcised – that person must be cut off from his people: he has broken my covenant.”
Maybe God is afraid he won’t be able to tell Abraham’s descendants from all the other humans; circumcision is his method of “branding” humans as his possessions.
When Abraham’s son Ishmael was thirteen years old (and Abraham was already 99), they receive a visitor who promises that Sarai – now to be called Sarah – would have a son, even though she was old and had stopped having periods.
Handing Daughters over to Gang Rape
In the next section, “Abraham intercedes for Sodom”, I find Abraham’s only moral act. God is planning on destroying Sodom because of its wickedness. Abraham pesters God, questioning Him on account of the upright who might live in Sodom. He gets God to promise not to destroy the city if he finds even only 10 upright people there. Apparently – there were not even that many, for Sodom was destroyed. The only person saved was Abraham’s kinsman, Lot. Lot was saved because he took in the angels of the lord and protected them when all the other townsmen wanted to have intercourse with them.
Lot told them, “Please, brothers, do not be wicked. Look , I have two daughters who are virgins. I am ready to send them out to you, for you to treat as you please, but do nothing to these men since they are now under the protection of my roof.” (Genesis 19:8)
It seems like Abraham and Lot have an equal disregard for women. I’ll admit, Lot was in a tricky position. But offering up his virgin daughters to gang-rape to protect two strange travelers doesn’t seem to push him into the Saintly Deeds category. His daughters meanwhile, perhaps after their experience of being raped by all the men in town until sunrise, become sexual deviants. After the destruction of Sodom, Lot was saved and ran off with his two daughters to live in a cave. His daughters, lonely and pining for husbands, decided to make their father drunk and have sex with him. They both got pregnant, and started new races of people.
Abraham, meanwhile, was whoring out his wife again. He had struck on the perfect formula for wealth in Egypt and repeated it while staying in Gerar with the king, Abimelech. Keep in mind, Abraham is still a nomad, a tribesmen, living in tents and moving around shiftlessly. When he comes into a settled territory, he is a guest of the local king. Again he told everyone that Sarah was his sister, and Abimelech sends for her thinking she is single. God promptly makes the entire household barren, but warns Abimelech in a dream that he will die because he has taken a married woman.
Abimelech argues, “Lord, would you kill someone even if he is upright? Did he not tell me himself, ‘She is my sister?’ And she herself said, ‘He is my brother.’ I did this with a clean conscience and clean hands.” Abimelech gets a raw deal. God admits that he’s got a point, but says he’ll die anyway if he touches her, so send her back to Abraham. Abimelech is a little pissed off – Abraham was trying to put him in a trap of sleeping with his wife, and then owing him reparations. “What have you done to us? What wrong have I done you, for you to bring such guilt on me and my kingdom? You had no right to treat me like this.”
Abraham offers a lame excuse and adds, “Anyway, she really is my sister, my father’s daughter though not my mother’s, besides being my wife.”
Again, Abraham makes out like a bandit for his deception. Even though Sarah is 90 years old and hardly worth all the drama, Abimelech gives Abraham a thousand pieces of silver, more cattle and more slaves.
Abraham is a shameless con-man, with a knack for putting people of prestige in difficult situations and then making them buy their way out. Him and his wife are despicable opportunists. (A modern parallel would be getting my wife to seduce some rich married guy and taking pictures to blackmail him.) However, most of their antics are completely forgotten, in favor of the more famous episode involving Abraham and his son, Isaac.
Abraham Sacrifices Isaac
Sarah gives birth at 90 to a son. Immediately she tells Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael, his bastard child, a decision that God supports, “Do not distress yourself on the account of the boy and your slave-girl. Do whatever Sarah says, for Isaac is the one through whom your name will be carried on.” (Genesis 21:12) They give Hagar a little bit of bread and water and send her on her way. She almost dies in the desert. She even abandoned her child at one point, but luckily, God takes pity on them and sends a well; but even this Abraham claims for himself, and bribes the King Abimelech with 7 lambs so that the claim will be recognized.
Finally we get to Abraham’s sacrifice, just about all anybody remembers about Abraham. God wants to put Abraham to the test, so he tells him to kill his only son, Isaac. Abraham took him to the designated place, lies to his face when he innocently asks what they were going to sacrifice, ties him down and takes out his knife. Luckily, an angel showed up to stop him just in time, and they found a ram caught in a bush and killed that instead. They named the place “Yahweh Provides” and Yahweh reiterated his promises. (He didn’t really expand his covenant – he only repeated that Abraham would have lots of descendants, that his descendants would defeat their enemies, and that the world would bless themselves through them.)
This passage is a celebrated event for Christians, Jews and Muslims. It is the beginning of central theology and rituals, and demonstrates what is considered “Perfect Faith” in God. For the non-religious, we can only gasp in awe that willingness to kill our children because the voices told us to do so can be considered moral excellence.
The Death of Abraham
When Abraham’s wife finally died, he used his influence to buy a piece of property for burial. Abraham married again and had 6 more sons – not to mention the offspring from his many concubines. He also searched out a wife for Isaac, to console him from the loss of his mother. Abraham lived a long time, and was intimate with God – although his primary aims seemed always to lean towards the acquisition of wealth and power. When he died he was buried in the cave he purchased. Interestingly – Ishmael showed up to help Isaac bury their father. (Even though he’d been completely abandoned and left for dead.)