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A Palace in Flames
Reaching us like pulses of ancient light from a star in a distant galaxy, the circumstances of Abraham's birth are obscure. His world--so different from our own, where the worship of one God at most is taken for granted--might as well be a different galaxy. However, this much is clear: no sooner had the child been born than the enemies of God set out to kill him.
In that year, according to tradition, knowledge of the Lord was scarce among men, and certain forces in the Near East wished to keep things that way. Stories collected in medieval times, later published under the title Ma'asei Avraham Avinu ("Deeds of Abraham Our Father"), recall his birth as being marked by a star rising in the east, consuming other stars. At this fearful wonder, priests at the court of a Mesopotamian tyrant, Nimrod, prophesied that a child was to be born whose descendants would seize the spiritual future of mankind, condemning the old gods to the ashes, to be replaced by the One God. Nimrod trembled at this. Almost alone among his contemporaries, who were ignorant of the Almighty, he knew God and hated Him. The Bible itself mentions Nimrod only in passing, noting that he was "a mighty hunter before the Lord," which the Oral Torah understands to mean that he hunted men's souls, seeking to turn them away from God. So Nimrod, advised by Satan, literally hunted Abraham. The future patriarch was born in a cave suffused with supernatural light, and God sent the angel Gabriel to protect him, causing a black cloud to hide the child from his enemies. The boy was called Abram.
Nimrod sought to bribe the child's father, Terach. If Terach would slay his own son, Nimrod promised great riches. Instead, Terach lied, insisting that the infant had already perished, and kept his boy in the cave until the danger had passed. Thirteen years went by before it was safe for Abram to emerge from hiding.
Details of these stories--the star in the east, the black cloud, the bribe for Terach--not only are dismissed as fiction by modern scholars but are neglected by the greatest medieval sages as well.
However, the sages wholly accept the work called Pirke d'Rabbi Eliezer ("Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer"), attributed to the school of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who lived around a.d. 100. What Pirke d'Rabbi Eliezer records about the patriarch's birth is terse. It can be relied on if any midrash, or biblical interpolation transmitted by tradition, can be: "When Abraham our Father was born, all the powerful men in [Nimrod's] kingdom sought to murder him. He was hidden underground for 13 years, during which he saw neither the sun nor the moon. After 13 years had passed, he emerged from underground, speaking the Holy Tongue [Hebrew]. He despised the sacred trees, loathed the idols, and trusted in the shadow of his Creator. He said, 'Lord of Hosts, happy is the man who trusts in you,' " a declaration later enshrined by King David in Psalm 84.
The general location of Abram's birth and early suffering is Mesopotamia, the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers centering on what is today Iraq and extending into southern Turkey. More specifically, Jewish tradition directs our attention to Cuthah, twenty miles northeast of Baghdad, as the city where Abram was born. There, an archaeological mound called Tell Ibrahim rises from the plain. A tell is an artificial hill comprising layer on layer of debris from a series of collapsed cities that once occupied a site, all interspersed and covered over with dirt. There are lots of them in the Near East. The farther down you dig, the further back in time you go. Since Muslim and Jewish beliefs on the subject of the first patriarch agree on many points, it is unsurprising to learn that the Arabic name "Tell Ibrahim" corresponds with the Jewish tradition that this undistinguished mound hides the ruins of Abram's birthplace. Little is known about Cuthah apart from its having been a center for the grisly cult of Nergal, god of the underworld, on whose account the city was called "the assembly-place of the ghosts."
Admittedly, one reading of Scripture and tradition would suggest that Abram was born not at Cuthah, but farther south at the great metropolis of Ur, or Ur Kasdim, as the Bible calls it. The location of Abram's cave, a place of pivotal importance for his spiritual development, is similarly ambiguous. Islamic tradition offers some speculation. In Turkey close to the Syrian border, a dusty city called Sanliurfa is identified by Muslims with Ur Kasdim. Arabs and Kurds who dwell in the area have built something like an Abraham-related memorial park, containing a cave said to be where Ibrahim was born, presumably also where he was hidden from Nimrod. In the side of a rocky hill, the entrance today is guarded by a one-eyed Muslim in robes who, when I was there, scowled as I purchased a ticket and removed my shoes to enter. Inside is a grotto with water pooled some distance below ground level, barred against entry and almost invisible in the dark.
Those scholars who have been inclined to think Abraham was a real figure have reached no consensus on the year of his birth, on where he fits into the time line of Near Eastern history. Estimates range from 2158 b.c. to as early as 1350. The great twentieth-century archaeologist W. F. Albright set the time of Abraham's migration from Mesopotamia to Canaan as having been between 1900 and 1750 b.c. Most views assign him a birth date somewhere in the Canaanite archaeological framework called the Middle Bronze Age I-II (2000-1650). In this period as well falls the birth year attested by Jewish oral tradition: 1812 b.c.
If tradition is right, then the originator of monotheism was born as the heir to a culture that originated civilization in general. Mesopotamia comprised the lands of Sumer, in the south, and Akkad, in the north. The people of Akkad were Semitic, but those of Sumer came to the region from elsewhere; precisely where is unknown. Before there was a First Dynasty in Egypt, these Sumerians built Ur. The Sumerian legal system became the basis of the Code of Hammurabi, which in turn preceded Hebrew law by four hundred years. In architecture, Sumerians invented the arch, the dome, and the vault. Abraham may be counted as the greatest of all the gifts to have been bestowed on mankind by Mesopotamian culture.
The Bible says nothing explicitly about what was going on in the Near East at the time Abraham was born. In fact, it says almost nothing about him till he had turned seventy-five years old. But it does tell us what had been happening in his family for the twenty generations that went before him. The story takes us back to Adam and Eve. One notes points of agreement between history and tradition.
It is possible to read the first chapters of Genesis in conjunction with the Oral Torah to suggest that before Adam, there were creatures who looked human and possessed human intelligence but lacked the defining characteristic of true humanity, a soul. If Adam and Eve really did exist, then according to Jewish tradition, they would have been created in the year 3761 b.c. Their original home, the Garden of Eden, is associated in the Bible with four rivers, including the Euphrates and the Tigris. In that period and that place, about 3800 b.c. in southern Mesopotamia, one finds evidence of an unusual people known to historians as the Ubaid culture. They were iconoclasts. In their pottery decorations, they disdained portrayals of humans and animals. At the important site Eridu, they left behind no mother-goddess figurines of the kind so favored by their near contemporaries. To a secular historian, this evidence "indicat[es] a striking difference in religious conceptions" reminiscent of the taboo on figurative art associated with Hebrew teaching. Could these people bear some relationship to the family of Adam and Eve? Some historians theorize that Sumerian civilization as a whole, its origins otherwise mysterious, grew out of Ubaid culture. That would accord with the Bible's narrative, which traces the founding of the civilization of "Shinar," or Sumer, to Adam's descendants.
An outline of earliest religious history is presented by Maimonides--often called Rambam, an acronym of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (Spanish, 1135-1204). In his Mishneh Torah, he writes that Adam and his sons recognized God but that Adam's grandson Enosh strayed, choosing to bow before God's creations--sun and moon, water and fire, the stars above all--through whose worship he thought he could win God's favor. As one generation faded into the next, men began to forget that nature had a single Creator. Temples were set up, sacrifices brought, sacred trees planted, and holy places established on mountaintops. This fits with history. In Mesopotamia, mountaintops were viewed as the principal address of any worthwhile divinity. When the civilization of ancient Sumer began constructing its greatest religious monuments, it fashioned them to resemble a mountain with the god's home at its peak, giving the shape of the classic Mesopotamian step pyramid, or ziggurat.
Rambam explains that at this point "The Rock of Ages [God] was unrecognized by any man, except for certain isolated individuals in the world who knew Him, for example [the biblical figures] Hanoch and Methusaleh, Noah, Shem and Ever." History, too, bears witness to this tenuous transmission.
Modern Bible critics direct our attention to the many similarities between Hebrew and Babylonian myth, the latter having been composed first, notably the Mesopotamian creation epic Enuma Elish, which parallels the creation account in Genesis. Writes Professor E. A. Speiser, there is not "the slightest basis in fact for assuming some unidentified ultimate source from which both the Mesopotamians and the Hebrews could have derived their views about creation." In other words, Hebrew "myth" derives from its Mesopotamian counterpart--quite a blow to the prestige of the biblical text--unless there is indeed an "ultimate source."
It would have been more accurate to say that, of such a source, there is no evidence apart from the assertion of Jewish teaching that a few of Adam and Eve's descendants preserved a line of tradition concerning the relationship of God to man and to creation. If so, it would not be surprising to discover that from other cultures one hears echoes of the data presented in the opening chapters of Genesis. So, for instance, Mesopotamian myth tells the story of a catastrophic flood and a man who survived it.
Judaism attaches much importance to this figure, called Noah. In the Talmud's tractate Sanhedrin, a whole religion, intended for humanity, is outlined: "Noachism" (in Hebrew, "Noah" is "Noach"), a system of moral directives centered on a sublime assertion of God's oneness--traced to Adam, though Noah received a commission from God to spread Noachism to the world. He failed: his tradition was never disseminated beyond his immediate descendants. At age seventy-five, Abraham would meet this line of "Noachides" in the eerie person of Malchizedek. But, growing up in Mesopotamia, he knew nothing of it.
The towering medieval sage Rashi (an acronym of Rabbi Solomon bar Isaac; French, 1040-1105), whose work we will draw on everywhere in this book, comments that since the time of Enosh, the Lord had been God of the heavens, but not God of the earth. "For the inhabitants of the earth did not recognize Him, and His name was unfamiliar in the land." As usual, Rashi conveys a tradition found originally in one of the ancient sources--here a midrash in Genesis Rabbah. Any tradition cited by Rashi is likely to be essential to understanding the scriptural text at a most fundamental level. He also notes that "until Abraham" appeared, "the Omnipresent was angry" with humanity.
The Lord was angry, and Abraham's contemporaries continued to pray to their gods.
Today we know details about religion in Mesopotamia that Maimonides did not. We know the names of the gods in its pantheon, who numbered up to four thousand in total, and what they represented. A pair of divine triads stood at the head of this pantheon. Anu (or An in Sumerian) was the god of the heavens, the "father" or "king" of the gods. Enlil was lord of the earth. And Enki was the god of the waters. Those three formed the first triad. The second comprised the gods of the moon, sun, and the planet Venus--respectively Sin, Shamash, and Ishtar.
For Abraham's contemporaries, the spiritual world was not transcendent, but immanent. When Mesopotamians worshiped the sun god or the moon god, it was not, as with Enosh, because they thought nature functioned as a proxy for the creator. Rather, the gods literally were nature. They were the idols themselves. Standing in the long chamber at the base of the ziggurat, the god was the carved piece of wood adorned with jewelry and gemstones.
The history of Mesopotamian religion may be divided into three parts, each lasting a millennium. In the fourth millennium b.c., man's consciousness focused above all else on the constant danger of death by famine. As in the Rambam's telling, the gods were the forces of nature in quasi-human form, for nature could feed or starve you at will.
Political organization marked the third millennium, as the main danger to human life shifted from nature to other men, in the form of war. The gods were increasingly understood as super-rulers, choosing mortals to serve as their representatives on earth. Hence the novel institution of kingship was established, as history and tradition agree: the sages of the oral tradition call Nimrod history's first king; his ascension, narrated in the Bible ("he began to be mighty in the land"), was a key event in the era immediately preceding Abraham's. Sharing supreme rule, the gods gathered to eat, drink, and issue arbitrary rulings on matters of concern to their human subjects.
In the second millennium, in whose second century Abraham was born, Mesopotamians groped for a more personal relationship to the divine. Man was anxious to believe that the gods were out there listening, feeling concern for him, sharing his worries. Not coincidentally, the centerpiece of second-millennium Mesopotamian literature, the Gilgamesh Epic, is about the prospect of death as the eternal end of all human strivings. The hero, Gilgamesh, goes in search of a way to restore to life his deceased friend Enkidu. Gilgamesh has heard a tale about a mortal who won immortality. This is Utnapishtim, the Mesopotamian Noah, who survived a great flood. But when our protagonist finally has the secret of eternal life in his grasp--it is a certain underwater plant--a serpent suddenly comes along and eats it. The moral of the story is: You are going to die. That will be the end of you.
While some Mesopotamians cheerfully accepted death as a final extinguishing of consciousness, others were oppressed by the terror of mortality. The archaeologist who uncovered the ruins of Ur, C. Leonard Woolley, wrote of Sumerian religion that it was a faith "not of love but of fear, fear whose limits are confined to this present life, fear of Beings all-powerful, capricious, unmoral. Somehow or other virtue does appeal to the gods . . . , but experience shows that mere virtue is not enough to engage and keep their favor; practical religion consists in the sacrifices and the ritual that placate and in the spells that bind them." In the Bible's account, which matches Woolley's, an ancestor of Abraham bears the sinister name Chatzarmavet, or "Courtyard of Death." As the Midrash explains, in his place the people lived in a constant dread of doom.
From the Hardcover edition.