Jon D. Levenson on the paradoxes of Abraham and Sarah

I know I’m decades late to reading Jon D. Levenson’s 1993 classic The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity but I’m glad I’m finally reading it! In ‘Chapter Ten, “Let me not look on as the child dies”‘, Levenson makes some enlightening observations about the paradoxical characters of Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah in the Book of Genesis. I want to share a few of them from pages 84-85 based on Genesis 12.1-3:

For Abram to be made into “a great nation” is, in the course of nature, impossible, at least if he is to remain in faithful monogamy with Sarai…For the man curse with a sterile wife to “be a blessing”—indeed, a universal byword of blessing—is equally preposterous. Yet “Abram went forth as the LORD had commanded him” (v 4), breaking with family and homeland to start—against all odds—a new family in a new and yet undesignated land.

These paradoxes are wonderful. Abram seeks to become a great nation by leaving his family. Abram will be a blessing, though he and his wife can’t have children. Here’s another excerpt:

The man without a country will inherit a whole land; the man with a barren wife will have plenteous offspring; and the man who has cut himself off from kith and kin will be pronounced blessed by all the families of the earth.

His comments on Genesis 12.10-16—when Abram has to go to Egypt soon after arriving in his promised land because there’s a famine and then gives Sarai to the Pharaoh in order to avoid trouble—are eye-opening as well.

The man to whom a land is promised is in exile; the man who is to beget a nation is without a wife; and the man whom God has promised that he will curse whoever curses him now takes extreme measures out of fear for his very life. And yet, just as our conviction seems confirmed that Abram has staked his life on an unrealizable, nay, absurd promise, we hear that “because of [Sarai], it went well with Abram,” and he acquired a massive estate (v 16)—evidence that the blessing, however diverted, has not been canceled.

These are examples of why I enjoy returning the the literature of the Bible again and again. They layers, even just narratively, are many. They’re profound.


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