Friday, August 9, 2013


Any summary of the story of the Chosen People has to begin, necessarily, in the Chaldean city of Ur, located in the Mesopotamia (or land between two rivers) in what today is Iraq. In that city lived a man named Abram who struck God’s fancy, so to speak.

At the time he was chosen to be the father of a great people, his wife was beyond childbearing age. One of the great wonders sealing the pledge, the “testament” or pact, between Abram and God, was the birth of Isaac to Sarah. The story is prototypical of many of the great “patriarchs,” or fatherly leaders in the Hebrew Bible.

Abram is renamed Abraham, in consonance with the importance of naming as a sign of power and submission. Parents name children. God names Abraham when the patriarch is chosen for his singular mission.

The power of naming is why the name of God—the Tetragrammaton or four-letter word (transliterated from Hebrew as YHWH)—was held to be sacred, unwritable, unspeakable unless absolutely necessary. To use it would be to assume undue power and familiarity with God, according to the rabbis.

Beyond the naming, there were a set of singular signs of the special relationship. For example, the command to circumcise all males.

There’s also the moral test: Do you obey God so thoroughly that if God tells you to do something unthinkably painful and repulsive you will do it anyway? God asks Abraham to kill his only son, Isaac, the beloved child of his old age. Abraham gets to the point of complying when God stops him.

The story is about obedience, but it had an additional message for the people who first heard it and retold it. They were, after all, people familiar with human sacrifice in the religions and cults around them. In the Genesis story of Abraham, the Bible teaches that the one true God does not demand human sacrifice; God ends them with the order to Abraham to put down his sword.

Leonard Cohen composed a beautiful song about it, “The Story of Isaac.” Click here to hear and see a video of it performed by Cohen himself.

God promises Abraham that he will be the father of a nation more numerous than the stars. Then God takes up a plan Abraham had been hatching with his father-in-law, to move to a new place, and transforms it into the quintessential journey to what would become the Jewish ancestral home.

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