I watched Rageh Omaar on Abraham last night (SBS) …

See also On being in Surry Hills yesterday and finding Nick Jose’s anthology remaindered for last week’s episode.

I wasn’t disappointed, even if I was left wanting to know more. And let me preface by saying I admired the way he ended with those wonderful souls in Israel/Palestine who are genuinely for peace and reconciliation – for example:

Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel builds peace, coexistence and equality through a network of integrated, bilingual schools for Jewish and Arab children. Founded in 1997, Hand in Hand’s success and longevity demonstrate that children, families and entire communities of Jews and Arabs can live and work together with mutual respect and friendship.

On the other hand how tragic that this land and its living people are so cursed by origin myths that just refuse to die. How sad were the images of Hebron. In Omaar’s own words:

Following Abraham’s story takes you from one war zone to another; from Iraq to Israel and the Occupied West Bank, where there are more Abrahamic echoes in the current conflict. The best known and most shocking part of Abraham’s story is the attempted sacrifice of his son. In the Jewish and Christian Bible, it’s Isaac he tries to sacrifice. In the Koran, it’s Ishmael. Yet all three faiths share an admiration for Abraham’s willingness to go through with the sacrifice, only to be stopped at the last minute by divine intervention. Is not sacrifice one of the key elements in the Middle East conflict, the idea that future generations must be willing to sacrifice themselves for the land? There have been so many times in my career, when I have interviewed political leaders, militants, settlers and soldiers, where I have written down the word “sacrifice” alongside the words “future generations”.

Even Abraham’s reputed resting place is one of ugly, primal prejudice and violence. Hebron, in the West Bank, is one of the most uncomfortable places I have ever reported from. It oozes barely suppressed violence and raw hatred.

The centre of the town is home to 170,000 Palestinians. High above the centre are two Israeli settlements, home to 800 Jewish settlers who throw down garbage, soiled nappies and rocks on the Palestinians below. The settlers have to be protected by the Israeli army. In the middle is the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where Jews and Muslims believe Abraham is buried. But it is divided, with a Muslim side to Abraham’s tomb and a Jewish side. The streets around the tomb are completely segregated; Palestinians are not allowed to walk on the Jewish side of the pavement.

Even in death and veneration, it is the Abraham of division that has been brought to the fore. Whatever he must think of his descendants, the best we could do is stop invoking his name and legacy to our modern day political disputes. To do so is to pour fire on the flames.

The story of Abraham is interesting in the same way that the idea Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus is interesting. Trouble is it is also about as true as that story.

As an Australian partly descended from our First People I find some things very odd: that the “Near East” (nowhere near here of course) mattered so much to God is just one absurdity. Consider:

 30,700 years ago  Underground oven shows continuity, Lake Mungo, NSW

30,000 years ago  Evidence of bread making, oldest in the world, Cuddy Springs, Western NSW

22,000 years ago  Occupation site at Wentworth Falls, NSW

16,000 years ago Hearths, stone and bone tools, Shaws Creek near Yarramundi, NSW

5,000 years ago  Occupation site, Penrith Lakes, NSW

And then about that last time, apparently, God made a real estate deal with a pair of geriatrics from Ur of the Chaldees via Haran.

Really? Seriously?

You mean you’re not joking?

I could rant more, but I won’t. I have ranted before, most recently in August.  You might add to that another consideration of where real historical study might lead you by reading Myth and Memoricide: Shlomo Sand’s “Invention of the Jewish People”.

Read Historical Issues in the Pentateuch by John McDermott, author of Reading the Pentateuch: A Historical Introduction. Paulist Press, 2002.

The first problem in investigating the historicity of Abraham, Sarah, and the other ancestors is determining when they are supposed to have lived. The simple answer would be to say that Exodus 12:40 gives 430 years as the length of time the Israelites were in Egypt, and 1 Kings 6:1 gives 480 years from then until Solomon built the temple. Therefore, if Solomon ruled sometime in the 10th century BCE, the last generation in Genesis must have been in the 19th century BCE. But there are contradictions in the biblical chronology. The events reported in the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings—from the time in Egypt up to the building of the temple—take more than 550 years, not 480 years.

    Comparing the stories in Genesis with extra biblical evidence also provides no definite answer for when they might have lived. While some scholars have claimed that some of the names, such as Isaac, Ishmael, and Joseph, and some of the customs, such as inheritance, are similar to those found in texts from the early second millennium, others have pointed out that they can also be found in later periods as well. Also, there are anachronisms in the story; it has Abraham encountering Philistines (Genesis 21:32-34), but the Philistines and other Sea Peoples did not arrive in Canaan until well after Abraham would have lived.

    The stories of the ancestors of the Israelites do not come from any one period but developed over time. It is best to see the ancestors as composite characters. Stories from the Shasu (nomadic people mostly south and east of Canaan), Apiru (gangs closer to the Canaanite cities), traders who traveled throughout the region, and residents of the Canaanite cities were passed down among the people who became the Israelites. The most important male characters in the final story—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—were likely revered ancestors or legendary figures of different groups of Israelites. The story makes them all part of one family as a way of strengthening Israelite unity.

Follow that with Educating fundamentalists by Susan Jacoby.

From the Channel Four site for last night’s episode see Abraham’s Inheritance:

In Abraham Al-Jazeera, journalist Rageh Omaar interviewed Dr Stavrakopoulou about the father of the faith’s role in the Old Testament. In this article she focuses on the biblical claim that God promised Abraham the land of Canaan, the land now claimed by Israelis and Palestinians today.

Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou is a senior Lecturer in the Department of Theology at the University of Exeter. Her research is primarily focused on ancient Israelite and Judahite religions, and portrayals of the religious past in the Hebrew Bible.

… The ideological dynamics of the biblical biography of Abraham are directly related to the period in which it was written. All scholars agree that the biblical stories about Abraham were written several centuries after the period they seek to describe, and many scholars now pinpoint the time of composition to the period of the exile in the sixth century BC, when the Israelites were conquered by the Babylonians, and their elites and religious leaders were taken captive to Babylon in Mesopotamia.

A blueprint for the future?
At this time of national catastrophe, the story about an ancestor who was similarly located in Mesopotamia but given a homeland in Canaan and a multitude of descendants was perceived as an ancient blueprint of God’s plan for his people in Israel. It demonstrated that God would act again in bringing Abraham’s descendants back to the land he had given to their ancestor, and ensure that the nation wouldn’t die out, but would continue to thrive for generation after generation. Just over a century later, the descendants of these exiles returned to the land, just as they believed their ancestor Abraham had done, and this was taken as ‘proof’ of God’s enduring promise of a homeland for Abraham’s descendants.

This biblical tradition has left a powerful legacy: today, many Jews, Christians and Muslims claim Abraham as their ancestor and assert their exclusive right to the land on this basis. The fact that most scholars agree that he is unlikely to have existed seems irrelevant in the face of the land conflicts afflicting the people living in the territories identified as Abraham’s…

Next week a total nutter looks at Moses and the Ten Commandments. 

Prepare by listening to some very reputable scholarship in these podcasts:

The author, Steve Wiggins, is Religion Editor, Routledge NY and until recently Part Time Lecturer, Rutgers University, Department of Religion. He is a Doctor of Philosophy, University of Edinburgh, 1992 on Ancient Near Eastern Studies and Old Testament.

Needless to say Koranic fantasies about Ishmael and Mecca fall into the same category of interesting myth and legend. Not to die for!