This essay is the fifth in a six-part series by Jacob Howland on Homer and the Hebrew Bible. Historians of Western intellectual culture sometimes compare “Jerusalem,” or the biblical traditions that erupt into history at Sinai, with “Athens,” the city where Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle sought human wisdom through the exercise of the human mind. In this series, Howland invites a different comparison. Rather than comparing later prophets to philosophers, he looks back at yet earlier cultural cornerstones set at the very foundations of Hebraic and Greek civilizations. The final installment in Howland’s series will arrive next month. —The Editors
The very first part of Genesis is less a history than a prehistory, and its human characters—Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his family—are not so much individuals as archetypes, conveying to us the elementary problems of the human soul and human society. By chapter 12, when God first calls on Abraham, other archetypes, now in the form of male and female heroes, enter the Bible. They are no less iron-hearted than are the superhuman warriors of Homer’s Iliad, but theirs is not the awful, tragic strength of an Ajax or an Achilles. Rather, the signal achievement of Genesis is to find heroism not just on the field of battle—where Abraham, too, excels—but on the hardscrabble ground of everyday life.
On that ground, the frequent stumbles and occasional triumphs of the patriarchs and matriarchs reveal the anguished depths and noble heights of human existence in the full richness of its flawed particularity. The Bible’s quotidian realism paradoxically elevates and expands the idea of heroism, even as it brings heroism itself within the reach of ordinary mortals.
In the ancient world, the only parallel to Genesis’s humanizing reinterpretation of heroic grandeur is Homer’s Odyssey—which stands to his Iliad as the patriarchal history stands to Genesis’s prehistory. Brutalized by the Trojan war, but still glorying in his splendid combination of physical and mental powers, Odysseus risks becoming no one: a beast or a god devoid of human feeling and therefore incapable of returning to the human fold. Writ large, that tragic consequence amounts to the Achilles’ heel of the Greek heroic ethos. In fact, it is the armor of dead Achilles himself that Odysseus wears when he sails from Troy—a prize of valor that King Agamemnon, playing favorites, had conspired to withhold from the towering and more deserving warrior Ajax.
It takes ten years of suffering at sea to rid Odysseus of that infernally hard shell. Only when he stands naked and vulnerable before Princess Nausicaa, the aptly named Burner of Ships whom we met in the third installment of this series, is he ready to abandon for good the soul-killing fantasy of heroic perfection. Only then can he begin the labor of rekindling his heart, mending the torn fabric of his human relationships, and reclaiming his identity as a husband, father, son, and king.
Odysseus’s renunciation of, and recuperation from, his Iliadic delusions has broad cultural implications. In his 2021 book The Confessions of Odysseus (on which the previous paragraph draws), the late Nalin Ranasinghe argues that the deep human connection forged at home by Odysseus with his slave Eumaeus, who fed him, sheltered him, and will later battle at his side upon his return to Ithaca, anticipates the model of civic reciprocity on which the Greek polis would be founded four centuries later. It is a nice coincidence that the first Greek city-states appeared only after a span of time equal to the Israelites’ 430-year sojourn in Egypt, which separates the epoch of the biblical patriarchs from the foundation of the Hebrew republic at Sinai. Neither Athens nor Jerusalem would have been conceivable absent the likes of Odysseus and Jacob on the male side and Penelope and Rebecca on the female side: fully human heroes whose bold cleverness and fortitude are ultimately tempered by humility and guided by love.
Returning to Ithaca long after he is supposed to have died at sea, Odysseus clothes himself in subterfuge. To pass among the brash young noblemen who have invaded his house and are courting his wife, he wears the disguise of an aged beggar, suffering their abuse and biding his time until he and his motley band of brothers—including two farmhands—are ready to strike.
Meanwhile, his cover is nearly blown by his old nurse, who recognizes his scar while bathing his feet. Odysseus had earned this scar during a visit to his grandfather Autolycus, in a boar hunt with his uncles on Mount Parnassus. Ancient boar hunts—an adolescent rite of passage—were ordinarily cooperative affairs. Four or five men armed with javelins would seek out the animal’s lair, set up a net, and wait while their dogs goaded the beast into breaking cover. Charging, the boar would get caught in the net and the men would swarm and stab it with their lances.
This is not what happens in the Odyssey. Instead, Odysseus jumps out in front of the line and the boar, exploding from cover, impales him just above the knee. The charging boar is Homer’s image of a wild and violent world. It is this fearsomely wounding reality that Odysseus, from the very beginning, has rushed to confront in the Odyssey.
But not everything is a charging boar. Always eager to test his strength against the world, to measure others as he measures himself, Odysseus has hurt those who love him most. His mother Antikleia, whose name suggests opposition to heroic pursuits (kleos is fame), dies of heartbreak when he fails to return from Troy. (He learns this from her shade in Hades, a ghostly wind that he pitifully tries to embrace.) His father Laertes, bereft of wife and son, plunges into despair. Pottering about his thorny garden, the old man spends his days dressed in “filthy rags” and “a goatskin skullcap/ to cultivate his misery that much more.” When he learns that his grandson Telemachus has sailed off to Pylos and Sparta, he even stops eating: “Huddled over, groaning in grief and tears,” the slave Eumaeus relates, “he wastes away—the man’s all skin and bones.”
Even after the suitors have been slain, Odysseus compounds his father’s agony—and his own—by testing him, “reproaching him with words that cut him to the core.” (Perhaps he understands that they both must pay penance for having self-indulgently withdrawn from family and polity.) Having given himself a false name—Epēritos, Man of Strife—he claims that he’d seen Odysseus five years previously: “We had high hopes/ we’d meet again as guests, as old friends,/ and trade some shining gifts.” “At those words,” Homer continues, “a black cloud of grief came shrouding over Laertes./ Both hands clawing the ground for dirt and grime,/ he poured it over his grizzled head, sobbing, in spasms.”
Putting aside Odysseus’s specifically filial cruelty, we may note in mitigation that a hard core of potentially ruthless determination is essential to all heroism, including the biblical and Homeric kinds. That hard core is as evident in the first and greatest of the patriarchs as in Homer’s eponymous hero. The adamantine natures of Abraham and Odysseus are givens: realities as stubborn as the facts of life.
Both men are tough and tenacious, more than a match for the pitiless desert and the barren sea. Both know how to take care of business: Abraham gets rich through trade in Egypt, while Odysseus—whose vast property has been eaten away by Penelope’s suitors— returns to Ithaca loaded with gifts of treasure from the Phaeacians. Both are also highly capable warriors, and neither is insensitive to the prospect of glory; Abraham, in a stunning military victory over the invading forces of four Mesopotamian kings, rescues “Lot his kinsman and his substance . . . and the women and the other people as well.”
Most important, both are prepared to bear the moral costs of doing what is necessary—and, what is more, to make others pay up as well.
“And the Lord said to Abram: ‘Go forth from your land and your birthplace and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” Thus begins the first of many odysseys in the patriarchal history.
God, who like any good salesman knows His customer, promises to make Abram “a great nation . . . and make your name great.” But He also proposes to help him achieve something far loftier and more inclusive than individual fame. “You shall be a blessing,” God tells him, “and all the clans of the earth through you shall be blessed.”
This is something radically new in the world: a historical promise for all peoples that—as God makes clear in due course—will take many centuries to grow and ripen. The magnanimous bearers of that blessing will need more than Odyssean patience as they advance into the trackless future. They will need a degree of lengthy suffering born of, and ultimately indistinguishable from, great faith.
Unlike the eponymous hero of the Odyssey, moreover, Abram is from first to last a family man. When he leaves the house of his father Teraḥ and heads south for Canaan, he brings with him his entire household: “Sarai his wife and Lot his nephew and all the goods they had gotten and the folk they had bought in Ḥaran.” As the father had taken Abram, Sarai, and Lot up from Ur of the Chaldees, his son and grandson would acquire their goods and their slaves in Ḥaran: portable assets that would serve the nomads well when famine compels them to seek food in Egypt.
And from Egypt, having spent some months (one presumes) in brisk business along the Nile, Abram and Lot then return to Canaan “heavily laden” with “silver and gold” as well as “sheep and cattle and donkeys and male and female slaves and she-asses and camels.” They have so much that the land isn’t big enough for their herdsmen to share. So Abram stays in Canaan while Lot, seeing that the plain of the Jordan is “like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt,” pitches his tent near Sodom.
Still, the profits earned in Pharaoh’s empire have come at a price. The Egyptian venture will damage the marriage of Abram and Sarai, and their fraught relationship will ultimately scar their children and even divide their grandchildren. At the core of this multi-generational domestic drama are questions about the nature of marital partnership and about the status of women in the family and the household. What does a husband owe his wife, and vice-versa? What does a man owe a slave girl who is carrying his child? What does a father owe his daughters?
Abram is the first person in the Bible to experience fear in crossing into a foreign land. (Cain’s anxious wanderings under the mark of God occurred before there were any national borders.) His trepidation on approaching Egypt arises from the extraordinary beauty of his wife, still radiant in her mid-sixties. His first quoted words, addressed to Sarai, are remarkable:
I know you are a beautiful woman, and so when the Egyptians see you and say, “She is his wife,” they will kill me while you they will let live. Say, please, that you are my sister, so that it will go well for me on your count and I shall stay alive because of you.
Abram’s life is in his wife’s hands; she can save him, if only she publicly disavows their marriage. And that is exactly what happens. Sarai, wife of Abram, briefly becomes just another female, an item exchanged in trade among men: “the Egyptians saw the woman was very beautiful . . . and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house” (emphasis added).
“Beauty, terrible beauty,” said the old men of Troy as they gazed at Helen, whose abduction (or seduction) had brought a great invading army to their shores. Sarai, the Helen of Genesis, must also have thought her beauty a curse. Men who can take what they like often do so—then as now.
What happened to Sarai in Pharaoh’s house while her husband and her nephew grew rich? Did Abram have a plan to get her back? Would she have remained in Pharaoh’s hands if God had not afflicted him and his household with “terrible plagues”? What passed between husband and wife on the long passage back to the Negev? The text draws a veil of silence over all of these matters.
Abram was right—the Egyptians did come for Sarai, and saying that she was his sister probably saved his life. What is more, the Egyptian sojourn would give Abram the resources to rescue Lot and defeat the Mesopotamian kings (an action involving the combined force of 318 of his retainers), and so to establish himself in Canaan as a force to be reckoned with. But his moral debt to Sarai is enormous, and she will not forget it.
What must she think when history repeats itself a quarter-century later in Gerar? On that occasion Abraham (as he is now called) again passes her off as his sister, and the Philistine king Avimelekh takes her into his house. Again, God rescues her, this time with a dream in which He tells the king “You are a dead man because of the woman you took, as she is another’s wife.” When Avimelekh protests his innocence, we are surprised to learn that Sarah has played a part in Abraham’s subterfuge: “Did [Abraham] not say to me, ‘She is my sister’? and she, she too, said ‘He is my brother.’” What are we to make of her behavior?
Man being a social animal, noble action almost always imposes a cost on others: spouses, children, friends, colleagues. Like Abraham, Sarah does not flinch at doing what she believes to be necessary if God’s promises are to be fulfilled. She, too, has a heroic temperament, and her acceding to Abraham’s deception of Avimelekh suggests that she has become a full and willing partner in his covenantal relationship with God. Yet she is only human, and her actions are subject to the unwritten laws of psychological and moral economy. In seeking to recover part of the emotional expense she incurs through self-sacrifice, she will tax others.
When the honorable Avimelekh confronts Abraham—“Things that should not be done you have done to me”—the patriarch takes refuge in a technicality:
For I thought, there is surely no fear of God in this place and they will kill me because of my wife. And in fact she is my sister, my father’s daughter, though not my mother’s daughter, and she became my wife.
Robert Alter observes that this episode occurs right after God has destroyed the cities of the plain. Abraham, he suggests, fears that the inhabitants of Gerar will be as rapacious and murderous as the men of Sodom. But they are not; not everything is a charging boar, and neither is a wife a sister. Yet even now Abraham does not fully understand the difference. It is presumably for his benefit as much as Avimelekh’s—and for the benefit of Sarah, who has learned to bend to Abraham’s wishes—that God tells the king to “send back the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will intercede for you, and you may live.”
Avimelekh evidently takes this lesson to heart, for years later he will rebuke Isaac when the latter claims that his wife Rebecca is his sister: “One of the people might well have lain with your wife and you would have brought guilt upon us.” But it seems that Abraham, for his part, may need further correction to learn what consideration and protection a man owes his wife.
Abraham’s education in these matters proceeds from the painful consequences of his actions, which have begun to unfold long before his encounter with Avimelekh. After ten years in Canaan, Sarai has delivered no child. Hoping to “be built up,” she takes her slave Hagar the Egyptian—whose nationality is important enough to be mentioned twice—and gives her “to Abram her husband as a wife.” This seems also to be a bit of score-settling: having served an Egyptian master at her husband’s bidding, Sarai makes an Egyptian woman serve Abram at hers, and in the same way. (Indirectly confirming this surmise is the suggestion by the medieval commentator Rashi that Hagar is the daughter of Pharaoh.) Abram has his own reason for complying with Sarai’s request. He had earlier complained to God that “I am going to my end childless,” and God had promised him an heir “who issues from your loins.” Might this be the way He intends to fulfill that vow?
Things do not turn out as Sarai hoped. Hagar puts on airs after she conceives, and Sarai takes it out on Abram: “This outrage against me is because of you!” It is not, but it is perfectly understandable why she says so: she still resents what he did to her in Egypt. But now she has only made things worse. “Let the Lord judge between you and me!” she declares, like a plaintiff bringing her grievance before the highest court. Abram’s response shows little concern or compassion for the woman who is carrying his child: “Look, your slave girl is in your hands. Do with her whatever you think right.”
“And Sarai harassed [Hagar] and she fled from her.” A divine messenger finds Hagar at a spring, making westward for Shur along the route to Egypt. He asks her a Socratic question that every human being must ponder—“Where have you come from, and where are you going?”—and then instructs her to return to Sarai “and suffer abuse at her hand.” But why must she do so if the child she is carrying is not the promised son? He now informs her that her child will be named Ishmael:
And he will be a wild ass of a man—
his hand against all, the hand of all against him,
he will encamp in hatred of all his kin.
That seems like a safe bet. Who can be surprised when, after the birth of Isaac, Sarah drives out Ishmael and Hagar—or that, thus spurned, Abraham’s elder son will feel rancor against his kin? But it might have been otherwise. Why wouldn’t the angel let Hagar return to Egypt as she does years later when she finds a wife there for her son (then dwelling in Paran in the Sinai peninsula)? Was God’s purpose, at least in part, to make it impossible for Abram to ignore his own responsibility for Hagar’s suffering?
Ishmael is in any case neither the first nor the last member of Abraham’s family who suffers so that God’s promise of land, nationhood, and universal blessings—the Promise—can be fulfilled. They all do. One sacrifice leads to another, with a logic that is at once psychologically compelling and morally instructive.
Filled with joy when Sarah gives birth, Abraham calls his son Yitsḥak, “he laughs.” Sarah laughs, too. Yet when she sees Ishmael “laughing” (m’tsaḥek) after her child is weaned—“Isaacing,” as the Jewish Study Bible suggests—she tells Abraham: “Drive out this slave girl and her son, for the slave girl’s son shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.” To Abraham, “the thing seemed evil,” and evil it was: Ishmael would have died had God not led Hagar to a well of water. But God tells Abraham to put up with it. He must have His reasons.
The full harvest of what Abraham did so many years ago in Egypt—what he had to do in pursuit of the fulfillment of the Promise—remains to be reaped. As Ishmael is cast out for Isaacing, Isaac must be Ishmaeled in turn. That happens in the “sacrifice” of Isaac on Mount Moriah, where Abraham is tested in a manner even Odysseus would have had difficulty dreaming up. This is the hard judgment and reciprocal justice of God, a judgment Sarah herself has called for in her quarrel with Abraham. Through no fault of their own, the two half-brothers bear the full weight of their parents’ marital strife.
The near death of both of Abraham’s sons establishes for all time the subordination of the family and all of its members to God. But it also accomplishes a catharsis of the emotions that had come between Abraham and Sarah. The family’s shared suffering—and there can be no doubt that the suffering is shared, for Jacob later speaks of “the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Terror of Isaac,” and both Sarah and Abraham must have felt that terror—teaches them, and us, what really matters in a marriage: what it means to be a good husband, wife, and parent. No less important, the shared suffering of Isaac and Ishmael binds each to the other. Many years later, that bond is strong enough to bring the brothers together to bury their father at the Machpelah cave that Abraham had purchased from the Hittites when Sarah died.
Also bearing mention is a related family drama in the Abraham narrative. It concerns Lot, whose ambivalence about the Canaanite lowland he has chosen to inhabit is suggested by his preference for liminal regions. Attracted by the lushness of the Jordan valley, he dwells at first not in Sodom but near it. Although the notorious city eventually draws him in, still, when two messengers of God come to Sodom, they find him sitting at the city’s gate. He presses them to spend the night with him rather than in the open square. Later, when “the men of Sodom, from lads to elders, every last one of them” demand that Lot deliver his two guests for the men’s pleasure, he comes out of his house, closes the door behind him, and bargains with them:
Please, my brothers, do no harm. Look, I have two daughters who have known no man. Let me bring them out to you and do to them whatever you want. Only to these men do nothing, for have they not come under the shadow of my roof-beam?
Lot’s desire to protect his guests is admirable, but his willingness to submit his daughters to gang rape is astonishing. He has no clear idea of the boundaries of the family, or of his duties to his closest female kin. The Sodomites are not his brothers, although he addresses them as such; and the young women are his daughters, although he treats them as no father—no man—ever should. The riotous crowd is anyway in no mood to negotiate. Standing exposed in no-man’s-land, Lot is rescued by God’s messengers. They pull him back into his house, the separate and private domain that he is implicitly pledged by marriage to defend.
Where did Lot get the idea to make such an offer to the Sodomites? Their corrupt ways seem to have clouded his judgment. Also less than helpful was the example of the bargain his uncle Abram had struck with Sarai in Egypt—risking her body for his safety. That early precedent, moderate by comparison with what Lot proposes here, could only have confused Lot about what a man owes his daughters, or what he has a right to ask of them.
His daughters, too, are deeply confused: after Sodom is destroyed and their mother dies, they treat their father as though he were their husband. Hiding in a cave in the hills above the smoldering plain, fearing that they are the last people on earth, they get Lot drunk and sleep with him. The sons they bear are progenitors of the Moabites and the Ammonites: future enemies of the Israelites.
The men and women of Genesis need to learn many things the hard way. When it comes to being good spouses and parents, children and siblings, they have a better excuse than most for what the Greek playwright Aeschylus called pathei mathos, “learning through suffering.”
Our first ancestors had to find their way in uncharted human territory, while we may benefit from the memory of their mistakes. We have no right to feel morally superior to them. For one thing, as we have seen, ordinary decencies, like unconditional honesty, can be serious liabilities in extraordinary circumstances. For another, who among us could claim to possess the sheer grit of a Sarah or an Abraham: the noble willingness to suffer whatever must be suffered, not simply so that their names will be magnified and their descendants multiplied, but so that “all the clans of the earth through you shall be blessed”?