The Most Complicated Character in the Bible

It isn’t Moses, despite the four books devoted to his adventures—it’s Abraham. Why?

From Abraham’s Journey from Ur to Canaan, 1850, by the Hungarian artist József Molnár. Wikiart.

From Abraham’s Journey from Ur to Canaan, 1850, by the Hungarian artist József Molnár. Wikiart.

Oct. 31 2014
About the author

Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik (Syracuse University Press) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Poems of Hanoch Levin earned a PEN Translates award and was released in 2019 by Arc Publications. He was ordained by Rabbi Daniel Landes and is completing a PhD on William Tyndale’s translation of Deuteronomy.

Abraham’s journey over the course of his life, the rises and falls, trials and errors, loves and losses, is the single most complex relationship with the Almighty charted in the Pentateuch. Surely—I hear you say—Moses has a whole four books devoted to his adventures! Well, yes and no. Moses is not really the hero of those adventures. After the exodus, his story is more about the prolonged exercise of trying to pound Torah into the easily distracted heads of the Jews than about himself and his relationship with God.

What is the central theme of Abraham’s story? I would argue that it is his learning not to be afraid, and learning to love God. And learning isn’t easy.

And God said to Avram, Go your own way,
from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house
to the land that I will show you: and I will make you a great nation
and bless you and magnify your name and you will be a blessing:
but I will bless your blessers and curse your cursers
and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.

The promises sound nice, but—as we read in this week’s portion of Lekh Lekha—Abraham must uproot his family. When he arrives in Canaan, he is but a migrant; it is his descendants, not he, who will inherit the land. Then things get worse: there is a famine, and Abraham must leave Canaan for Egypt. Afraid that his wife’s beauty will cause him problems in a hostile country, he has her identify herself as his sister. The plan backfires: Pharaoh has her taken to his house, and woos her by giving Abraham lavish gifts of livestock. Fortunately, God retaliates by striking Pharaoh and his household with a plague; the truth about Abraham and Sarah’s relationship is revealed; and the two leave Egypt. They’re even able to bring the livestock with them.

A little later on in this week’s reading, God appears to Abraham again, this time with a warning:

After these things the speech of God to Avram was in a vision to say,
Do not fear, Avram, I will protect you, your reward will be very great.
But Avram said, Lord God, what shall You give me
as I make my way childless
and Eliezer of Damascus runs my household;
for Avram thought, Look, to me You have given no descendant
and now my only household member shall inherit me.
But now the word of God to him was to say, This one shall not inherit you; rather, who comes from your loins shall inherit you.
And He took him out and said, Please look at the sky
and count the stars if you can count them,
and He told him, Your descendants will be like them,
and he believed in God and thought Him just.
But he said to him, I am God who brought you out of the Chaldean furnace
to give you this land to inherit.
And he said, my Lord God, how shall I tell that I’ll inherit it?

To Abraham’s repeated doubts, God responds by having him bring a sacrifice, a kind of ritual handshake to ratify the covenant, and then delivers another prophecy:

And as the sun was about to set a trance fell over Avram
and here was the terror of a great eclipse falling over him.
And He told Avram, Know beyond all knowing
that your descendants shall be migrants in someone else’s country
and they’ll belabor and torment them four hundred years.

Which is suddenly a rather different proposition from the open-ended promises of boundless progeny. The promise of your children being enslaved for four centuries before you acquire the title deeds? Why the price tag? There is not a word in justification, though Abraham’s terror is palpable and the vision of the furnace and the torch suggest a much more binding arrangement than any of his previous conversations with the Almighty.

Then Sarah, who has not been privy to all these promises, takes matters in hand and gives him her Egyptian maid, Hagar, hoping to “perhaps be established by her.” The plan, however, is too successful:

And he came unto Hagar and she conceived
and she saw she had conceived
and her mistress appeared cursed in her eyes:
and Sarai told Avram, I’ve been robbed by you,
I myself put my maid in your arms
and she saw she had conceived and I’m cursed in her eyes.
Let the Lord judge between me and you.
But Avram said to Sarai, Here’s your maid
in the palm of your hand, do with her as you see fit.
And Sarai tormented her and she fled from before her.
But the angel of the Lord came upon her by the desert water spring. . .
And the angel of the Lord told her: Go back to your lady
and be tormented under her thumb.
And the angel of the Lord told her,
I will manifoldly multiply your descendants
And they will be beyond count.
And the angel of the Lord told her,
You are with child and will bear a son
and you will call him Ishmael
because the Lord listened to your torment.
But he will be a desert man
with a hand against everyone and everyone’s hand out for him.

The reading ends with another encounter between Abraham and the Almighty, in which God announces that the mark of His contract will be on Abraham’s flesh and the flesh of all his descendants, so Abraham and Ishmael and all of Abraham’s household are circumcised. He also tells him that Sarah will bear him a son and that this son alone will actually inherit. But Abraham just laughs and asks Him to look out for Ishmael.


If you stopped reading here, you’d find the flight of Hagar to the desert upsetting—but you’d get over it, and there is more to come. But has Abraham learned anything? He keeps on asking for proof; he wants to know how he will inherit the land, he doesn’t believe Sarah will bear him a son. There was no miracle involved in Hagar’s bearing him a child—she’s a young woman. In essence, Abraham still doesn’t quite believe the Lord controls every part of his reality.

His education is completed in next week’s reading, Vayera, where Abraham migrates through the Negev and settles in the kingdom of Grar. He tells King Avimelekh that Sarah is his sister—with predictable results: Sarah is kidnapped. God scares Avimelekh off, but unlike Pharoah, Avimelekh is indignant. Abraham’s lie has almost made him an unwitting adulterer:

And Avimelekh called Abraham and said, “What have you done to us?
And how have I sinned against you that you brought
on me and on my kingdom this great sin?
Things which are not done you’ve done to me.
And Avimelekh said to Abraham, What have you seen that you did this thing?
And Abraham said, Only because I said, There is no fear of God in this place
and they will kill me over the matter of my wife. . . .
And Abraham prayed to God and God healed Avimelekh.

If you fell asleep in synagogue, you could be forgiven for waking up suddenly in the middle of Vayera and thinking, “What week is this? Didn’t Abraham do this last week?” Yes, here we are again: another trip, another worry, another powerful man taking Sarah away. Did Abraham learn anything? Well, no.

What finally changes this time is that Abraham is called out on his fear and has to justify it. And how does he justify it? “There is no fear of God in this place”—this alone was enough to make him feel unprotected, abandoned. He is alone there in fearing God.

But he is not alone; God is with him. And it is only when two things change in Abraham that his relationship with the world is transformed as well. The first change is that he stops fearing. The second is that he turns outward, and prays for Avimelekh in order to restore the wrong that he has inadvertently caused him. Earlier, he didn’t pray for Pharaoh’s wounds to be healed; he just got up and got out, pronto. But now he is willing to be connected, even to people not under his control.

Abraham has finally absorbed the fact that, whatever things may look like, he is not alone. And when he finally sees that and no longer lives in fear of the world, his embrace of Sarah, whose beauty he both loves and fears, ceases to be guarded. When Abraham is connected to the world and not afraid of it, God’s promise of a child through Sarah, a child through whom the blessing will be transmitted, can be fulfilled. In the next chapter, Sarah gives birth to the promised son.


Meanwhile, what about Ishmael? He still presents a problem:

But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian
that she bore for Abraham making fun.

Once again, you can get a feeling of déjà vu. Sarah throws Hagar out—this time, with Ishmael—Hagar finds herself in a wilderness, and an angel appears to her with a prophecy about her son.

Sarah’s demands after Isaac is born and weaned and she wants his rival removed are legitimate, but the medieval commentators struggle nonetheless to justify her actions. Some, giving up, find in them the cause for the prophecy of 400 years of slavery. Nahmanides in the 13th century pins it squarely on Sarah’s torment of Hagar: “Our matriarch Sarah sinned by this torment, and so did Abraham by letting her do so, and the Lord heard her torment and gave her a son who would be a wild man to torment Abraham’s descendants and Sarah with all sorts of torments.”

David Kimhi (1160-1235) puts it in a larger moral context:

Sarah did not act in this with either the quality of virtue or the quality of kindness. Not virtuously—since for all that Abraham waived his dignity and told her, ‘Do with her as you see fit,’ she should have stayed hand out of courtesy to him and not tormented her. And not in the quality of kindness and a good soul—because it isn’t fitting for one to do all in his power with what’s under his control. As the wise man said, how gracious is forgiveness at a time of power! And what Sarah did was not good in the eyes of the Lord, just as the angel told Hagar, “the Lord heard your torment” and recompensed her with a blessing in lieu of her torment.

Rashi, the most universally quoted of medieval commentators, parses the word innui, torment, as meaning that Sarah had herself enslaved Hagar. But whether or not this was indeed the cause of the Egyptian slavery (the Almighty never explains), this is the point in Jewish history where all the slavery begins. When Abraham’s great-grandchild is sold into slavery in Egypt, it will be through the agency of Abraham’s descendants the Ishmaelites. That same great-grandson, Joseph, will in turn teach Pharaoh to enslave all of Egypt, before Pharaoh finally enslaves the Jews.

Incidentally, one thing you do come away with from these stories is the power of female prophecy, the force of a mother’s influence—quite independent of the mission promoted by God through the (largely male) prophets. Hagar, lost in the desert with her son, receives a second prophecy of her own:

And she went and she got lost in the desert of Beer Sheva
and the water ran out in the wine sack
and she lay the boy under one of the shrubs
and she went and sat herself down opposite
about two bow flights away
for she said, I can’t bear to watch the boy die,
and she sat opposite and raised her voice and wept.
But God heard the voice of the lad
and God’s angel called Hagar from the heavens
and said to her, What ails you Hagar?
Have no fear for God listened to the lad
wherever he may be. Get up, carry the boy
and hold him by the hand for I’ll make a great nation out of him.
And God opened her eyes and she saw
a water well and she went and filled the wine-sack
and she gave the lad something to drink.
And God was with the lad and he grew up and settled in the desert
and became a master archer.

The story of Hagar’s terrible exile in the desert is read in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah as a model of crying out to God and being heard; but it is a dark model. Hagar goes into the desert, driven out by Sarah’s divinely sanctioned imperative that Isaac will be the true Abrahamic heir. Hagar doubts the Lord’s promise to her and despairs. But even in her despair, when she walks two arrow flights away, her prophecy shapes her son’s life: an archer is what he becomes. The son she lets go of spends his life firing arrows to fill the space she opened up between them.


So what did Abraham learn, and did he learn it too late?

God gave Abraham several prophecies: that he would make him a great nation, that his descendants would be too numerous to count, and that through him all the families of the earth would be blessed. You could say the birth of Ishmael was a mistake, due to Sarah’s lack of faith, but God doesn’t make mistakes. When Abraham partially accepts God’s promise, his promised blessing partially arrives in the form of Ishmael, whom God does make into a great nation.

It is only when Abraham learns to give up fear that he becomes a true force in the world, a force both in his intimate space and in the desert he roams and tries fruitlessly to control. Only when he renounces fear does his spiritual legacy go out beyond him, into Sarah and from Sarah into Isaac. And from Isaac, after many more travails, the blessing goes out to cast light in the world.

But it is hard going. And if it was a hard lesson to teach Abraham, the most God-fearing of men, it becomes only harder as the Lord tries, over the length of four more books, to teach it to Abraham’s divinely-touched but fearful and always skeptical progeny.

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