Ten years ago, Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles created a controversy during Passover. In his sermon, he claimed that the Exodus from Egypt as described in the Book of Exodus did not happen the way it is depicted, if it happened at all. He claimed that there is no direct archaeological evidence of Israelites in Egypt or in Sinai, and the settlement patterns in Canaan in the Late Bronze Age do not verify the biblical account of the conquest and settlement as portrayed in the books of Joshua and Judges.
When I teach biblical history to my students, I tell them that there are two issues that must be examined. First, did the event happen and were the characters real? And second, if they are, is the account of them historically accurate? Saying yes to both gives us an historical account. Saying yes to the first and no to the second gives us historical fiction, and saying no to the first gives us fiction. Minimalists, biblical scholars who deny the historicity of the biblical account, say we are dealing with fiction.
If Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael are fictional characters, we have to ask ourselves: Who would have invented them, when and why? The minimalists claim that they are an invention of the late biblical period (the end of the Babylonian and beginning of the Persian). They were created to give the Jews coming into the land of Canaan (or Palestine, as they prefer) justification for their possession of the land, by claiming that God promised the land to their ancestors.
Technically, the Babylonian/Persian period (sixth-fifth century BCE) would be the latest date that a fictional account may have been created. The earliest such date was most likely the time of David. He likely would have begun the process of recording the events that led to the rise of his kingdom (the J document, if you accept the "source theory" that the Torah was written not by Moses but by four different authors).
But if David was creating fictional characters, would he have created characters such as Abraham and Sarah? God tells Abraham in Genesis 21 to "obey your wife." Would David create a character that is dominated by a woman? Are the patriarchs,with some morally questionable actions, the kinds of characters that David would invent to glorify his origins? Wouldn't it be more likely for David to create a warrior like himself?
Would David, who lived in the Iron Age, have known the customs of the Middle Bronze Age in which Abraham lived? Would he have known the Code of Hammurabi, which incidents in the lives of Abraham and Sarah seem to reflect?
For example, law 146 of Hammurabi states that a slave who has a child cannot rank herself with the mistress. In Genesis 16:4, when Hagar sees that she is pregnant, the text states that "her mistress [Sarah] was lightened," or lowered, "in her [Hagar's] eyes." Later, in Genesis 21:11, Sarah wants both Ishmael and Hagar expelled, because "the son of that slave will not share in the inheritance with my son, with Isaac." Law 170 said the son of the slave shares with the son of the wife. In Genesis 16, Sarah liked the code. In Genesis 21, it works against her.
Whether Abraham knew these laws and lived by them, or a later author was also familiar with them and used them as a basis for his stories, is hard to determine. More than likely, the stories as David might have known them are based on either real people whose lives are accurately portrayed (history), or the characters were known through an oral tradition, and David used them to create his document (historical fiction).
In any case: Does it matter? To me, as a teacher of Bible in a Jewish day school, the answer is yes. We are presented with real people in real-life situations. I want my students to feel they are reading their history, and they understand that who they are is based on the lives of their ancestors and the decisions they made in dealing with life's difficult decisions.
Barnett Kamen, a teacher at Barrack Hebrew Academy, is one of many faculty members offering courses at Barrack U on Dec. 11. The program, along with a Summer Camp Fair, is open to the community. For information, see www.jbha.org .