Abraham’s Virtues

Yoram Hazony makes the case that in Genesis, Abraham is painted as a paradigmatically virtuous character because while not perfect, God has confidence that Abraham will “command his children and his house after him, and they will keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and right.”[1] His case is bolstered by Genesis 24:1, “And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.”

Hazony gives a list of Abrahams most apparent virtues (paraphrased below):

  1. He can be generous to strangers.
  2. He is troubled by injustice to the point of taking great risks to obstruct it (he even argues with God).
  3. He insists on only taking what is his and paying for what he gets.
  4. He is pious.
  5. He is concerned to safeguard his own interests and his family’s.

Without looking at Hazony’s list, I made my own based on the Abraham story. It nearly matches:

  1. Abraham’s willingness to enter covenants is both altruistic (bless the earth) and self-interested (make a great name, you’ll be blessed, etc)
  2. Abraham rejects human sacrifice (see Genesis 22).[2]
  3. Abraham believes in right and wrong as absolute categories and challenges God’s actions on their basis.
  4. Abraham doesn’t fear conflict, or rather, shows great courage in the face of battle (when it comes to the power of giant cities, he has a harder time, but in his defense fighting tribal kings is a different animal that opposing the might of emperors in their walled megacities).
  5. Abraham insists on hospitality.
  6. Abraham trusts God (Genesis 15:6).

Anyway, the problem with virtues is that they are mean between extremes and can easily devolve without circumspection. And in Abraham’s story, we see time and again where his self-interest conflicts with the well-being of his wife (letting her into a royal harem!) and his trust in God (having a child with Hagar). Hazony makes these exact observations as well.[3]

I think that for many, particularly in academic Biblical studies, we tend so much to focus on the apparent evil committed by this or that Biblical character that we can fundamentally miss the idea that the authors are trying to paint portraits of the good life. Because of this, they highlight the necessarily difficult task of making wise and just decisions in light of a hierarchy of goods which are often in conflict.

The idea that Abraham was virtuous despite nearly killing his son and that he was deeply concerned with his family’s riches and reputation is intellectually difficult. While I take the story of Isaac as a rejection of human sacrifice, most people I know think Abraham was really going to do it. With those to caveats, I still anybody could read back through the Abrahamic narrative (Genesis 12:1-24:1) asking, “what does this say about being happy or blessed in the Biblical sense?” I think the food for thought that the story provides will be well worth it.

References

[1] This is Hazony’s translation of Genesis 18:19. The Philosophy of the Hebrew Bible, 112.

[2] In my mind, Genesis 22 makes it clear that Abraham, never for a second, was going to submit to the demand to kill Isaac. The New Testament has readings of the story implying that perhaps God could raise Isaac from the dead if Abraham did it. That may be true, but in the story, Abraham tells Isaac that God would provide an offering for the sacrifice.

[3] 113

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