Lech-Lecha, Genesis 12:1-17:27
This Shabbat we begin reading the stories of Abram, soon to be known as Abraham. With these narratives, the story of the Jewish people begins. Over the next few weeks, we will follow the story of this biblical family as it faces a variety of crises. The remainder of the book of Genesis might be described as a family affair, with few references to public events.
These stories are not historical narratives, but rather theological legends. They are not an accurate historical account of the lives of ancient people, but a collection of stories, which attempt to present important religious and ethical teachings in a historical context.
Did Abraham exist? And does it matter? We must begin by acknowledging that any evidence outside the Bible has confirmed no specific details about the life of Abraham. There is, for example, no mention outside of the Bible of the war of the five kings against the four kings, which is recounted in Genesis 14, nor of any of the kings mentioned in the text.
Now an argument from silence does not definitively prove that these events did not occur, nor that the individuals mentioned did not exist; it is certainly possible that future archaeological discoveries will authenticate at least some of the events and persons mentioned. Despite a lack of specific references to Abraham, some scholars argue that archeology can shed light on the biblical stories.
So we must move on to the next question: Does it matter? Is it important that we are unable to historically verify the existence of Abraham? I believe that we can confidently answer “no” to both questions. As Jews, we do not look to the stories of Abraham for history; we look to these stories as the source of our religious and ethical values. We have long recognized that these stories are not historical narratives, but theological legends. The lessons that we derive from them are independent of their historicity.
Noted author and rabbi, David Wolpe, drew headlines in the Los Angeles Times by preaching in a sermon on the results of a contemporary archaeological study. He said that the Israelite Exodus from Egypt likely never occurred, that the Israelites likely originated as indigenous Canaanites who over time developed a distinctive new identity, and that the biblical stories of the Exodus under Moses and the conquest under Joshua are therefore to be understood as later, national identity-building legends. I suppose one can debate the liturgical wisdom of raising these issues precisely on Passover (one congregant is said to have complained, “It’s like a priest telling his congregation on Christmas Day that Jesus never existed”). He said, “I wanted to give my congregants tools with which to work out their own theology. My goal was to teach my congregation how to learn about its faith from modern disciplines and scientific faiths … I think faith ought not rest on splitting seas. For a Jew, it should rest on the wonder of God’s world, the marvel of the human soul, and the miracle of this small people’s survival throughout the millennia.”
While we should not ignore the scholarly debates concerning the historical nature of this material, we can rest assured that any conclusion that scholars draw will not materially affect our religious faith and practice. The stories we read about Abraham, beginning with his journey from Haran to Canaan, are powerful narratives, regardless of whether they occurred exactly as the Bible records them. They teach us and inspire us and provide the basis for our religious beliefs and practices. They provide meaningful lessons that have inspired generations of Jews, as well as non-Jews, and will no doubt continue to do so. May their messages continue to guide and teach us. JN
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami in Scottsdale and the immediate past president of the Greater Phoenix Board of Rabbis.