Abraham, Sarah, and their family--are they "historical" figures?
The simple answer? No... and Yes. (Ok, so it's not a simple answer)
Another answer is the actual title of this episode:
"Historical in/significance of Abraham's story"
This odd title can refer to four things.
1) The "insignificance" of Abraham as a "historical figure" for historians
2) The significance of Abraham's story in history
3) The historical dimension "in the significance" of Abraham's story
4) The significance of Abraham in how history has unfolded ever since.
And all of that leads us back to God's original promise to Abraham in Genesis, to bless him, to make him great, and to make his name significant, so that he will be a blessing to all people.
1:33 Primeval History in Genesis versus…
8:29 … the Ancestral History in Genesis
13:02 Who wrote Genesis and why?
21:12 The question of Abraham as a "historical" figure
27:35 Historical in/significance of Abraham
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[ pendulum ]
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam constitute the three major faiths of what is often called the “Abrahamic religions.” Together with a few other traditions, such as the Druze, and the Baha’i, these different religions hold in common their belief in the God of Abraham —the belief that “God” that created all things, spoke and revealed Himself to a man named Abraham in a distant past. Today, the adherents of this single set of religions are estimated to be around 4.3 billion or more.
It is, in some sense, ironic though that a clear majority of the people in the world today, from widely different ethnicities, cultures, and languages, all call this man, Abraham, and his wife, Sarah, as their spiritual forbearers. After all, historically speaking, we don’t even know that these individuals really existed.
But, that’s the point; that’s part of the message of their story.
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So, let’s consider what that means as we begin this new chapter in our journey in…
"What do you mean, God speaks?" where we explore important ideas, insights, and stories in Christianity, for the skeptics who want to understand religion, to the Christians who have questions about their own beliefs. And everyone in between.
I am Paul Seungoh Chung, and this is our second episode of the third season, “On the historical in/significance of Abraham’s story”
[ / music ]
Modern scholars tend to separate the book of Genesis into a two-part narrative. The first part, which we explored in the previous season of this series, is called the “primeval history,” and it consists of the first 11 chapters, narrating the Creation of the cosmos, the first human couple living in a paradise, their fall, the first murder, the Great Flood, and the Tower of Babel. The second part, which we will explore this season, is called the “ancestral history,” and consists of the remaining chapters, from 12 to 50. This part narrates the lives of the ancestors of the people of Israel, from Abraham and Sarah, then their children, and their children.
Now, until the 1970s, scholars believed that the “historical” portion of Genesis really began from this “ancestral history.” The “primeval history,” they had concluded, was not a literal, historical account of past events, but rather a general description of reality—of the relation between God, the cosmos, and humanity—presented as a story. And yes, one reason for this view was the advances in modern science. But, I should again point out that Christian theologians, since way back in the early Church, raised the possibility that Genesis was not presenting a literal account of how our world came to be; they thought that God may be communicating profound truths in a way that humanity can understand, with metaphors and stories. Yet, this was only a possibility for them, and until the nineteenth century, they had no compelling reason to not read Genesis literally. Even after modern science changed how many of us think about the “primeval history” chapters in Genesis, most historians still held the view that the “ancestral history,” from the 12th chapter and onward was a straightforward historical account—records about a family who lived around 3500 to 4000 years ago in the middle bronze age Near-East. This view, however, has been largely abandoned since the 1970s among scholars. But, wait—what that means is kind of complicated, and we’ll get to that later.
There is still something that makes the first 11 chapters of Genesis and the remaining chapters markedly different from each other, aside from history. And it has to do with… the kinds of relation between God and everything else that the two parts describe—in the different ways in which we can relate to God. The ancestral history is about how a specific family at a particular time, comes to relate to God as time passes. The primeval history is about how everything, and everyone, relates to God, at all times.
The Creation account in the 1st chapter sets the foundational frame; God is the Creator of all things—the Spirit of God is that which breathes upon the waters that represent the infinite possibilities of what can be; everything that happens and everything that comes to be, is God speaking. Well, even saying it like that is missing some key nuance that would be especially interesting to modern, scientific readers. Remember the previous season? The Genesis Creation account is separated into parts: God creates things in stages—in six days—and several times, God pauses, seeing that what has come to be is “good.” This in turn implies that God could have stopped there; so, the universe could have just been a single searing moment of light in the darkness; it could have been an expanse of energies, particles, and possibilities; it could have been filled with stars and galaxies, yet with no life; yet, God would still be the Creator of such a universe—such reality would still be God speaking, according to Genesis. It may even be that God does create such worlds too. However, our world… is not that kind of world—the universe we live in, which God is speaking now, is full of life, with creatures like us, who peer into the heavens in wonder, and speak with God. That is our world in relation to God.
From that foundational frame, the rest of the primeval history paints a background—a setting in which every other story in the Bible will unfold. This is the series of narratives that describes how all of humanity relates to God, at all times. So, Genesis describes humanity as created in the image of God—we relate to God by flourishing and going everywhere; by loving each other as the “best” of who we are; by tending to the trees in Eden that represent the endless possibilities of Life, and eating the fruits they bear. However, one tree—one possible path in life that we may take—was a fearful distrust toward what God may speak in our lives, leading in turn to our distrust toward Life, and other people, including those we love; that’s the story of the Fall. This distrust, bound with Life’s hardship, and our resentment, leads some of us to respond by ending a life; that’s the story of Cain, and how murdered his brother due to his distorted relationship with God, with Life, and other people. When an entire society follows the ways of Cain, it fills our world with corruption and deceit, which then unravels everything; that is how reality unfolds—how God speaks forth judgment—in response to what we make of our world; that’s the story of the Flood. Those who refuse to be like Cain, and builds a world, however small, in which trust is kept, violence is rejected, and God’s voice is heard, are people like Noah and his family, who survives this Flood. Even then, humanity may still try to build a city, which holds everyone in one place—a place where everyone speaks and thinks the same, and live under a towering legacy, to which nothing more will ever be added; but, God will push us out from such a place; we will be made to speak and think differently; and such a legacy will never be complete. That’s the story of Babel. So, this set of narratives is the universal description of humanity’s relation to God—ranging from the most ideal, to the worst case scenarios. It is about how reality unfolds, about what happens in Life—thus what God speaks—for every human being, at any time.
And it is from this universal time, that the book of Genesis begins the story of a family, living through a specific period in time. What then differentiates their story? Well, in the previous episode, “What do you mean ‘There’s no God’?” I said that the Jews and the Christians perceived God in everything that happens—the entire cosmos, and all of history. But, I also added that they believed that there was a direction to what was happening around them. ( Oh, btw, I’ve made some revision to that episode earlier this month—especially the 2nd half—to make its points clearer and flow better. I’ve added “re” to its title, so if you listened to the one without that “re,” in the title, that’s the older version. ) Anyway, if there is a direction to what is happening, that means there is some sort of progression; so, you’re either going further toward something, or further away from it; it is, simply put, a journey. So, the primeval history in Genesis sets the stage, by describing how all things, and all of humanity, relate to God; then, from that setting, the ancestral history begins the story of a people who relate to God, by taking on a journey.
And it is a multi-generational journey. What one generation learns in their journey with God, are passed down to the next, so that they begin from where their parents left off. And the direction of a journey is toward a specific promise—or rather, a set of unfolding promises—given to Abraham, which is then passed down to his descendants.
Let’s look at the first of these promises—the most significant and foundational to the rest. It is found in the opening of the 12th chapter in Genesis.
“The LORD has said to Abram—(who would later change his name to Abraham): ‘Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household, to a land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and bless you. I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and those who treat you as insignificant, I will remove my blessing, so that, all the families of the world will be blessed through you.” 
The entire Hebrew Bible, or the Christian Old Testament, in some sense, is about the journey toward this promise in the 12th chapter of Genesis—it is following the story of a people relating to God who is unfolding all of history toward the direction of this promise to Abraham. And this journey begins in the “ancestral history” chapters of Genesis.
And this is why the question of whether Abraham’s family really existed in the past is important. And it’s not because the Bible needs to always report literal, historical facts; there are many, many important truths that are not about what specific things happened in history. However, the promise to Abraham, and his family’s relationship with God who spoke this promise, is something that has been—or should have been—unfolding through history from sometime in the past. The truths of the primeval history narratives in Genesis—at least, if we understand them properly—are something we could see for ourselves in the present; it is about what God speaks, how reality unfolds, every time, including for us now. But, the truths of the ancestral history is more specific; it is about what God unfolds for people who has received a promise; it is about whether God did unfold the events in history toward the direction of what God promised.
So, if Abraham, Sarah, and their family, were not real people who lived in the past, then, we cannot help but ask, in what sense can we say, God made a promise and fulfilled it? In what sense has God unfolded history toward the direction of the promise, when the people who have supposedly journeyed toward this promise, didn’t exist? Of course, we can say that the story of Abraham’s family and their journey toward God’s promise is describing the kind of life that we should live it out for ourselves—and this is quite true. But, it still raises the problem of why we should live that kind of life. After all, the selling point of the story—to put it bluntly—is that we should do so because people in the past did live this out, and they saw the promise come true.
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So, are they historical figures? This family—Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants?
Well, when can we reasonably say that some specific person existed in the past? It’s not like we can go back in time, and check whether they were there. It’s different from the natural sciences, which can check their theories in the present, by experiments or by say, examining geological or fossil records. Even disciplines like archaeology say what kind of people or society existed in the past, by examining their remains in the present day. But, that’s different from saying some specific individuals really lived, or some specific thing really happened, in the past. So, what makes us say something like that? The simple answer is, historical records—preferably the records of those people and events, written in the time as closest to theirs as possible. And archaeological findings can also corroborate what the records say—or at least, not contradict it. So, for example, if the records say a king named, Ramses, lived in Egypt 3300 years ago or so, and then you find a tomb built 3300 years ago, with a name, “Ramses,” then you’re set! Of course, in most cases, it’s not as clear cut as this, but, you get my point.
So, here is the main issue. For various reasons, most scholars believe that the first five books in the Bible, called the Torah—which includes the book of Genesis—was written around 2500 to 2700 years ago. Abraham’s family though was supposed to have lived anywhere between 3500 to 4000 years ago. So, the records we have on hand about Abraham were written around 1000 years after he lived.
Wait a minute! Doesn’t the tradition say it was Moses who wrote these books? Wasn’t he was a prophet who is said to have lived only a few centuries after Abraham? Yes, but, we’re talking about the version of Genesis we’re reading today (To be precise, the one written in the Hebrew language, since the rest of us are reading translations). That final version, according to scholars, was completed around 2500 years ago. Now, none of the five books of the Torah names Moses as their author. There are times when the Christian New Testament calls Moses as the author, but they’re referring to Moses as the one who taught the laws and regulations set forth in those books. And we can sort of understand what they mean, this way; your college physics textbook about Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is not actually written by Einstein himself, but you are still studying the work of Einstein through that book. Now, the issue about Moses is more complicated than that, but, we won’t get into it until another Season.
We should, however, go over what was happening when these books were likely being written. So, here’s a short summary: around 3000 years ago in the Levant—today’s Palestine, Israel, and Syria, there were two nations called Israel and Judah. The people of these two kingdoms were closely related to each other, culturally and ethnically, and they spoke and wrote in Hebrew. We know this not just from the Bible, but from various records of other nations in the Middle East during that time, and from the findings of contemporary archaeology. About 2700 years ago, the kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire, which ruled over the lands of today’s Iraq. The survivors from Israel fled and settled in Judah, because of the close kinship between the two nations. Judah lasted about 100 more years, until a new Empire, Babylon, invaded it. Sometime between 597 BC to 581 BC,—so around 2600 year ago—Babylonians razed Judah’s royal capital, Jerusalem, to the ground. The people living there were taken captive, and deported to Babylon. So, exiled in a foreign land, these Hebrew-speaking captives from Judah were expected to fade away as a people, with their faith forgotten and lost. After all, in those days, that’s usually what happened to defeated peoples.
However, something else happened. The exiles first mourned, and then began to reflect. What had happened? Where did they go wrong? If God speaks forth everything that happens, then, what was God speaking through all of this? And it seems they already had some idea. As far as historians can tell—and according to the Bible—there were some voices in Israel and Judah that had declared that their nations were under the judgment of God. People and their rulers had become unfaithful to their God, and had filled their societies with injustice, hypocrisy, false worship, and idolatry. These voices had warned that their nations were on the path to destruction. They were dismissed by the wider society in their day, but with Israel and Judah destroyed, their words seemed to have been vindicated for the exiles. There was another message though—message of hope. The exiles will be restored; their land, their nation, their faith, will be one day be returned to them. God will bring this about. Then, about 60 years later, in 539 BC, Babylon fell to a new Empire, Persia, which did something unprecedented for their time; they permitted the captive exiles to return to their homeland and rebuild their city.
All through those turbulent years, the exiles wrestled this one, critical question: what is their relationship to their God? How can they properly relate to God that speaks forth everything that happens, including the events that led to the destruction, and then the restoration of their nation? By asking this question, they were trying to understand who they were as a people, what had happened to them, and who they could become. And they wrote the book of Genesis, and the story of their ancestors, as part of their answer.
Now, some people seem to think that this means that the authors of Genesis somehow just “made up” the characters like Abraham and the others who appear in the book. But, if you think about it even a little bit, you’d know that, that wouldn’t work. People back then weren’t stupid, at least any more than we are now. And the question of who your ancestors were was a big deal, especially in ancient times. People back then would already have some established belief and even stories about who their ancestors were; you couldn’t just make up some characters in your head one day, and then tell people that these are their ancestors instead—they’d beat you with stones, literally. Instead, what most scholars today think is that the Hebrews back then already had older stories of figures like Abraham and Sarah, or later figures like Moses, and so on.
What the exiles from Judah did, however, was to bring together the different variations of old stories, teachings, and traditions that had been passed down in their communities. They also likely referenced some older records and texts, which are lost to us now. This was a massive project, with different groups of people, spanning several generations, compiling, re-writing, editing, and redacting what they brought together, to understand their relationship with their God who unfolds all of history. What they completed was a tapestry of teachings, tales, and texts, woven together into a new narrative, adapted and retold in ways that resonated with what their generation was going through, living in exile, and then, returning to their homeland. This project became the five books of the Torah, the first of which was the book of Genesis. Or, so the scholars believe.
And herein is the difficulty. We think there were older stories and sources; but, we don’t have those. We don’t know what they said. All we have is the version that was written around 2600 to 2700 years ago. And they aren’t from the time of Abraham.
Here’s an illustration of what our difficulty is. So, let’s take the story of Robin Hood. You know, the famous outlaw hero from England, who steals from the rich, and gives to the poor? Renowned for his skill with the bow, and leading a band of outlaws who camped in Sherwood Forest, fighting the tyranny of the hated Sheriff of Nottingham? Of course, the story of Robin Hood could simply be a fable about how the common folk can resist tyrants. But, he may really be a historical figure, who lived in the 13th century. We do have mentions of him in the records dating from those days—or rather, there are several people from those days who could very well be the basis of his story.
Ok, for argument’s sake, let’s say one of those historical figures really was Robin Hood, and that the basics of the story—the band of outlaws, fighting for the oppressed against the tyrants of the day, and so on, really did happen. Now, there have been many, many adaptations of his story into plays, TV shows, games, and movies. There’s one movie where he is portrayed by Kevin Kostner, and one by Russell Crowe, for example. Well, let’s say we make another movie that draws upon these many variations. But, this is the 21st century, and our struggle with tyranny or oppression now is not quite the same as the struggle in the 13th century England. So, what would happen if themes and issues that resonate with us today were put into this movie? Maybe the Sheriff of Nottingham is a racist, and his men are terrorizing or even murdering people from a particular race. Maybe Robin Hood can be played by a black person—I mean, it’d be nice for me if he was played by an Asian, but it was considered a huge step for Hollywood a few years ago when they actually cast Asians for Asian comic book characters! Anyway, maybe Maid Marian is fighting to become the next head of her noble House, instead of her corrupt brother, who is the heir just because he is male. Maybe Will Scarlet is gay. Maybe Friar Tuck is fighting for freedom of speech, using the newly invented Printing Press. Yes, I know, the printing press in Europe was invented centuries later, but, that’s the point. And yes, maybe all of you are now realizing why I don’t make movies.
The point is, such a movie would be based on the story of a people who really existed —since we are going with the idea that there really was a historical Robin Hood. But, the actual movie itself would not be historical; it would be a 21st century adaptation of that story. The core of that story and its themes may be from the original story—band of outlaws fighting tyranny—but because what that means is different in the 21st century, and how the story portrays these themes and plot would be quite different.
Now, let’s say in some distant future, that movie is the only remaining version of Robin Hood’s story. If historians in that future were to ask whether Robin Hood in that movie was a historical figure, then the answer would be “no.” Robin Hood could not have been a black man. They’d also say racism, gender inequality, persecution of LGBT, weren’t the issues that the common folk were fighting against in 13th century England. And the printing press wasn’t invented yet either. Again, people in that future may realize that the movie is based on older stories. But, because that movie is all they got, they would have no way to know what exactly those older stories were. And so, they wouldn’t be able to say if those stories were historically accurate, and based on real people.
And that’s what historians mean when they say that the Genesis story of Abraham and his family isn’t historical. What they mean is that their story, as portrayed in the book of Genesis—which is the only version of the story we have—does not accurately depict the time and place that they supposedly lived. Now, if the story accurately described the historical situation of the time in which they lived, historians would have concluded that the writers of Genesis had reliable records of what happened back then. But, since the 1970s, they found that this wasn’t the case. For example, in the story, Abraham owns camels; but camels weren’t domesticated in that region until centuries later. And cities and nations, which did not exist back then, appear in the story. So, it is rather like how our Robin Hood movie does not accurately describe 13th century England. Now, there are still some scholars who point out that, aside from things like camels, Genesis does not contradict what we know about that time period. But, for most historians, that is not quite good enough; they want to reconstruct what happened in Abraham’s time. But, they have no way of going beyond the Genesis story that was written 1000 years later, to some older stories or records nearer to that time. And if they can’t, they have no way of assessing whether those stories are based on historical events.
So, the historians are not saying people like Abraham’s family, who encountered God, and whose lives were a journey toward a promise from God, never existed in the past. They don’t know that; they can’t know that. But, that’s what Christians are concerned about—at least, those who aren’t biblical literalists about everything. They are seeking different things from the story of Abraham’s family. Historians want to know if their story can be used to accurately reconstruct the past; Christians want to know if their story truly describes how God relates to real people, like themselves.
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In the first episode of the second season, I introduced the idea of “accommodation.” This is a core Christian notion that God speaks to us truths that can we can grasp with our current limitations, and level of knowledge. So, the Genesis Creation account, for example, is accommodated to the ancient Hebrews, living 2600 years ago, and their understanding of the cosmos. However, it turns out that this “accommodation” isn’t just about accommodating to people’s level of understanding; it also means accommodating the important stories to the lives of the people who are reading them. So, the world that Abraham lived is described in ways that would be familiar to the Hebrews living 1000 years later; his life and story are retold in ways that address the issues and events they are struggling with, in their day—torn from the land of their ancestors, exiled in a foreign land without a home, afraid, and feeling… utterly insignificant.
[ Music Genesis / ]
And these exiles would have remembered the story of their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah. They would have remembered that they too were insignificant. Because you see, there’s a reason why I used Robin Hood as an example to compare to Abraham. There are other figures who lived in 13th century England that we know quite well they existed. Kings, nobles, bishops—those whose names were written down because they were powerful. Robin Hood was a commoner, a folk hero, living among those who would have been considered insignificant. And there are many individuals who lived in the time of Abraham who historians have no trouble saying, are “historical” figures. They were the kings of the great cities of Mesopotamia, the pharaohs of Egypt, who built monuments to their honor. We can’t know how much of the details about Abraham and Sarah, told in the book of Genesis, differ from the older memories and traditions. But, we do know this. If they existed, they were insignificant individuals. While they were alive, they left no mark in any of the significant historical events of their day; no one chiseled their deeds on monuments, no scribe wrote of their deeds in the royal annals. Sure, they were—at least according to Genesis—well-to-do heads of an extended family, but compared to those whose names remain in historical records from their days, they were migrants, among countless others, living without property, or homeland.
Just like the exiles.
But, the Hebrew exiles from Israel and Judah would remember that this family, who left no records, and only vaguely remembered in their communities, were blessed by God. They had numerous people mentioning them as their ancestors. That is what it meant to be led by God; that is what it meant for God that unfold all of history, to unfold your life and your children’s life toward a promise, and toward God’s blessing.
So, the exiles wrote. After all, they too, were insignificant. So insignificant that 2600 years later, historians can only guess about their ancestors. They were insignificant in the lands of the captors, the mighty Babylonian Empire that had razed their homes to the ground. They were insignificant next to their captors’ towering ziggurats, palaces, and monuments, proudly extolling their conquests and accomplishments. And here they were, far from home, cut off from their roots, without a land or nation to call their own. Then, they wrote about a promise—perhaps they repeated the promise their ancestor is to have received long ago, word for word; perhaps they wrote words that resonated with them now.
“The LORD said, ‘Go out from your country, your relatives, and your father’s household, to a land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and bless you. I will make your significant, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and those who treat you as insignificant, I will make them insignificant, and all the families of the world will be blessed through you.”
And did this happen in history? Does God really unfold history in the direction of this promise, to real people?
Well, here I am, 2600 years later, someone of Korean-descent, from literally the very edge of the land far beyond the ancient Hebrews ever knew about. And in Canada, in another continent altogether, on the other side of the globe, I’m doing a podcast about Abraham’s family, and the writers of Genesis.
Well, that’s not all there is to it, of course. I mean, if we end there, you could say that this is just selection bias. But, this promise is but an opening to their story, which will explore what it means to follow that promise, to face the hardship and challenges, to go through times when it seems like that promise is but a mirage. And then, encounter God on the other side.
[ Music ending / ]
So, please join me next time, as we go into the life story of Abraham and Sarah, as recounted by the exiled Hebrew writers of Genesis.
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