Book Review: Abram to Abraham: A Literary Analysis of the Abraham Narrative
Dr. Jonathan (Yoni) Grossman, a member of the Bible faculty of Bar Ilan, and son of Dr. Avraham Grossman, Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at the Hebrew University, is a long-time favorite of many students interested in literary analysis of the Bible. Dr. Grossman, a frequent contributor to Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Virtual Beit Midrash, has long been known for his careful readings of Biblical text, and his keen structural and syntactical awareness, many examples of which can be found in the Maggid Press series on the weekly parashah, Torah MiEtzion, which collects essays from various faculty members affiliated with Har Etzion, as well as in his earlier volumes on the books of Esther and Ruth.
In his latest full-length work on the Abrahamic narratives, newly translated from the original Hebrew (where it was titled Avraham: Sippuro Shel Masa), Grossman brings his trademark mix of original analysis of texts long familiar to readers, combined with a vast knowledge of both traditional and academic literature on the topic, including literary analysis and knowledge of the ancient Near East. Even more impressively, in an extended discussion in the opening chapters of the dual nature of Abraham as Patriarch both in the familial and political/national sense, he cites with ease major political theorists including Locke, Rousseau, Mill, and Hegel, as well as lesser known figures like French historian Jules Michelet and Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz. Rare is it indeed to find a book by a religious Bible scholar that integrates such a diverse yet relevant range of sources, from an address to NYU law school about nationalism in the aforementioned discussion, to a poem and a scientific study on the relationship between laughter and conception in his discussion of the birth of Isaac. From chiastic structure to Christian commentaries, from politics to nuanced discussions of peshat, Grossman leaves no stone unturned in this volume.
Along the way, Grossman treats his readers to brilliant insights into the stories of Abraham. Some examples include his noting, in Abraham’s discussion with Melchizedek following the battle between the four kings and the five kings, that there is the ambiguity of who is giving whom the tithe in the verse “and he gave him a tenth of everything” (Genesis 14:20), and that “it doesn’t really matter who gave to whom; the two characters are inseparable and equal. Perhaps the two meet in the Valley of Shaveh (“equal”) for this reason” (p. 151).
In his discussion of the Berit bein HaBetarim, the “covenant of the pieces,” he, citing previous scholars, notes that the origin of the word “berit” might come from the Akkadian birit (“between”), which connotes the mutual commitment between two parties, a particularly apt word for a ceremony in which God’s fire passes between the pieces of the animals that Abraham had slaughtered.
Lastly, in an extended discussion of Lot’s daughters’ seduction of their father (which Grossman published in Catholic Biblical Quarterly as a stand-alone article titled “Associative Meanings in the Character Evaluation of Lot’s Daughters”), Grossman makes multiple astute literary points, including offering an extended case for a more positive reading of the actions of the younger daughter, as opposed to the older, while reviewing the interpretive history of the episode in sources ranging from Jubilees, Josephus, and Chazal to modern scholars.
In conclusion, if you enjoy reading literary analysis of Tanach, appreciate works of traditional scholarship that utilize impressive arrays of academic scholarship, or simply want to learn more about the trials and travails of our Patriarch, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of this book.