When God chooses Abraham to found a dynasty, how does Abraham react? Scholar Robert Alter; law professor Azizah Y. al-Hibri; novelist Bharati Mukherjee; community activist Eugene Rivers III; theologians Lewis B. Smedes and Burton L. Visotzky; and playwright-composer Elizabeth Swados join Bill Moyers for this discussion.
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The Lord called to Abraham, and said “Leave your native land, your birthplace, and your father’s house. Go to a land I will show you. And I will bless you and make your name great and you will be the father of many nations. And all of your children will be blessed for I will be their God. I will bless those that bless you; —And anyone that curses you I will curse. And all the families of the earth will be blessed in you.”
So Abraham left his home and took his wife Sarah, his nephew named Lot, and all their belongings and servants, and set out for the land of Canaan. Abraham saw that the Canaanites already dwelt there. He moved on, but the Lord appeared again. “Abraham, you and your children shall have this land.” So Abraham built an altar to the Lord who had appeared to him.
When a terrible famine fell on Canaan, Abraham went down to Egypt. At the border, Abraham said to Sarah, “Listen, I know what a beautiful woman you are. If the Egyptians see you they’ll kill me to get to you. Say that you are my sister so it will go well with me. And I will live because of you.”
And it was true: the Egyptians found Sarah to be very beautiful. When Pharaoh heard of her beauty he took her into his house. And he treated Abraham well for her sake. Abraham was given sheep, oxen, donkeys, servants, and camels.
But God caused great plagues to fall on Pharaoh because of Sarah. And Pharaoh sent for Abraham and said, “What have you done to me? Why didn’t you tell me that she was your wife? Take her and be gone!”
So Abraham left Egypt with Sarah, Lot and his many servants. Now he was very rich in cattle, silver and gold. He went back to the place where he had first pitched his tent on the mountain, where he had built an altar for the Lord. And there, in that place, Abraham called out the name of God.
LEWIS SMEDES: We’re asking how Abraham’s experience is like ours, or ours like his. But as you pick up that story, as I read — as I read the story, this isn’t a model of how God comes. This isn’t teaching us the — the religious dynamic of being in touch with the eternal. This — this is a particular guy, and God comes and says, “I’ve got something that I wanna do, and you’re gonna be my instrument.” Now, I’m fascinated. If Abraham had had a tape recorder, would he have picked up the voice of God? I don’t know. I’m sure if I hear God, I wouldn’t pick it up on a tape recorder. I have a hard time making Abraham’s call a model for mine. because I don’t hear God.
BURTON VISOTZKY: I’m very intrigued with that notion. And it’s funny ’cause I — I share your dilemma. I was talking with Bob about — Gene, how — how — you know, you coming out of Harvard University, could have gone anywhere, and — and — the fact is, is that you work in the ghetto with gangs. That’s a calling. I — I’m a praying Jew. I talk to God all the time. But I don’t usually hear answers. That’s — that’s the trouble. It’s a much more subtle process. And I think maybe that’s — what Lew’s driving at Abraham’s — process is very radical. A voice comes to him and says, “Get up and go. Change your life-”
LEWIS SMEDES: Period.
BURTON VISOTZKY: “Change everything about it.” Nobody ever says that to me. Everything’s in very slow increments. If I hear God at all, it’s — you know,- somewhere the lines of a page that I’ve been studying for hours. And what I hear is maybe just, you know, the inspiration — “Well, it’s time (LAUGHTER) It’s but — but that’s already moved me.
BILL MOYERS: I’ve heard — Bob say that he — that what he finds- fascinating about this call, is that it was unanticipated and bewildering. It just —
LEWIS SMEDES: Yeah, that’s right. Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: There’s was nothing to prepare him. Is that right?
LEWIS SMEDES: Maybe it was anticipated, but there’s no hint in the story that it is.
ROBERT ALTER: You know I every time I hear this story read - there’s one little voice in my head that — that wants to yell out to everybody, “Don’t do it! Look at all the trouble you’re gonna get yourself into.” (LAUGHTER) And then — and then — and then I think — What is it he’s asked to do? He’s asked to go to a land of unspecified identity. And God says, “I’m going to give you this land. I’m going to make you a blessing. And you’re going to have this multitudinous seed. And, of course, he doesn’t have any children at all. Now, there’s something that I immediately identify with here. Nationalism, of course, is a hot potato in our world. And you might say that this is —
EUGENE RIVERS: I love it.
ROBERT ALTER: — a nationalist fable. I’m going to give you the son. I promise it to you. Your descendants will dominate this land. But, then the second half of the chapter, and even if this is an edited process, the editor knew what he was doing, immediately pops Abraham out of that land — —and he goes in the other direction. And — and — and so also, you — you have this — swing between a nationalist and a ruthless cosmopolitan.
EUGENE RIVERS: I love it.
ROBERT ALTER: Who goes from one end of the civilized world to the other. From Mesopotamia to Egypt. That’s something that really makes me ponder.
BURTON VISOTZKY: Even the nationalist he doesn’t have the land.
ROBERT ALTER: Right. He doesn’t. Yeah.
BURTON VISOTZKY: It says explicitly in the chapter we read, right? The Canaanites are still in the land.
EUGENE RIVERS: Right.
BURTON VISOTZKY: God sends ’em the land, says, “I’m gonna give it to you.” But it’s not quite his when he gets there. Right?
(OVERTALK) BURTON VISOTZKY: Not only is it — God says, “I’m gonna give you offspring.” But he’s got a barren wife, right?
EUGENE RIVERS: But see that’s the life of faith I identify with the notion of the call. I identify with the nationalism.
As I — as I see — let’s say in the context of the black community, a community completely coming apart in every way, from top to bottom. Disarray, confusion, nihilism and decay, that’s what I see. Now, through the lens of faith, using Abraham as an interesting case study not necessarily as a – model,”-but there’s a hint for me. There is no land, there is no people. You know, I mean, but, there is the call and the promise. I have now, as a result of the work that I’m doing, my home has been shot into twice over the last five or six years, in the course of doing the work that we do. And those events, in the crucible of those contexts, right? Working with these folks my prayer life has changed dramatically. You know? Some young hoodlums shoot at a kid next door to my house 32 times, with a nine millimeter and a 45, alright? That evening, or that morning in the a.m. — there’s a question about whether we are going to leave the neighborhood. Alright? All the kids in the neighborhood, there’s sort of a moment of truth. Do you pull out? The issue of the call comes up, right? Now it is our relationship with a personal God that determines the call that we made.
I remember my wife comes downstairs. We had a church van in front of our building. They shot that. Jeez, I mean, 20 some times. And I — and I say, “sweetheart, it’s your call.” I’m not going to use —
ROBERT ALTER: In the early sense, a call, right?
EUGENE RIVERS: Right. Yeah Right. It’s your call. If you say we’re outta here, we pack up today. She says, “I believe that God has called us to this place to do this thing for this season.” Right? Because a reporter comes and asks, “Well, what are you gonna do?” I mean, and — and one of the bullets was 12- went 12 inches, you know, where — where — within 12 inches of my son’s head — where he was sleeping. Right? So this is no joke. This is — and so we had a very deep sense as we prayed together that God had called us. And this was part of the price that we had to be willing to pay to be faithful to our sense of the call from God.
LEWIS SMEDES: You were called to leave something, even though it meant staying still? Yeah.
LEWIS SMEDES: You were called —
EUGENE RIVERS: That’s right.
LEWIS SMEDES: To give up your dreams of security?
EUGENE RIVERS: Oh, the whole nine.
LEWIS SMEDES: Yeah. Urn Hmm (AFF.)
EUGENE RIVERS: But I’ve got a promise, and I have a decision to make. Will I obey as an act of faith, as a person of faith? Because it’s on that basis that a people will come into existence.
LEWIS SMEDES: It is sheer faith isn’t it? I — picking up on what you said at the beginning, I’ve sometimes imagined Sarah waking up about 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, hearing some bustling. She gets up and Abraham’s packing. (LAUGHTER) And Sarah says, “What are you doing, Abe?” “Packing. Can’t you see?” (LAUGHTER)
EUGENE RIVERS: That’s great.
LEWIS SMEDES: “What for? Well, we’re leaving. Where are we going? I don’t know.” (LAUGHTER)
ROBERT ALTER: Yes, right.
LEWIS SMEDES: “Why are we going?”
EUGENE RIVERS: Oh, absolutely.
LEWIS SMEDES: “He told me.”
EUGENE RIVERS: “What?”
LEWIS SMEDES: “Who’s He? He didn’t tell me.”
EUGENE RIVERS: Right. Right. (CHUCKLE)
LEWIS SMEDES: And — and — and — and — and I put a —
BURTON VISOTZKY: Yeah and poor Sarah plays that role a little too often.
SMEDES AND EUGENE RIVERS: Yeah. Yeah.
LEWIS SMEDES: And then I could imagine Sarah calling her father. “What am I gonna do’?”
EUGENE RIVERS: Yeah. That’s right. That’s right.
LEWIS SMEDES: Her father says, “I knew she shouldn’t have married this nut.”
LEWIS SMEDES: But he goes.
EUGENE RIVERS: In — In — In — and the pivotal factor in his faithfulness to his understanding of what God had called him to do and his willingness to put at risk much as an expression of his faith.
LEWIS SMEDES: But, but, if I had an inkling that God was telling me to sell off my pension and give it all away and, and, and to leave all of my friends and everything that in my past has identified me as who I am. And begin “de novo” in another place with another people in a totally different situation that I cannot imagine. Then I have a hard time.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: That’s because you haven’t been an immigrant, and that’s why I was calling Abraham —
ROBERT ALTER: Yes, I want to hear about that-
LEWIS SMEDES: But even an immigrant is different-
BILL MOYERS: Let’s talk about that, yeah.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: —that he didn’t have any assets to begin with. And I’m, he’s going to —
LEWIS SMEDES: — he had land and he had family —
BILL MOYERS: One — one moment. Let me raise a doubt about that. His family was a fairly affluent family. As- wasn’t it? Tera(PH)? He had sheep — lived in — well, okay — alright, okay, but he started out with nothing.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yeah, but this is not disinterested faith. This is God saying I’m going to reward you if you do things my way. That the pastures are greener where I’m going to lead you. And so in a sense, he is going for a prize, a booty. And I was calling him an American because in a sense he’s gonna use any kind of wiles necessary in order to cross that border and get to the land that he decides is the promised land.
LEWIS SMEDES: There’s one critical difference, I think. My parents were immigrants, and when they came, they had seen pictures of America.
EUGENE RIVERS: That’s right.
LEWIS SMEDES: They had gotten letters from America.
EUGENE RIVERS: That’s right.
LEWIS SMEDES: They had dreams of America. They knew something, either by fantasy or by reality, of what they were doing. Abraham —
BURTON VISOTZKY: He’s very different.
LEWIS SMEDES: —didn’t have anything.
BURTON VISOTZKY: I mean, in the Bible, the conversation they have is not — “What are you doing packing?” And what we read the — the portion that we’re looking at, all Abraham says to Sarah is, “Tell them you’re my sister, so I’ll make some profit.”
LEWIS SMEDES: That’s right.
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: I — I’m just concerned about the way Abraham is… coming out of all of this. (chuckle) And how this relates to the call.
ROBERT ALTER: We’re a rough audience. (OVERTALK)
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: I think I — I — I really see him a lot more of a sympathetic personality. He — he is not — obeying God because God chose him. Rather, God chose him because he already chose God. He already went against his own community. And he said, “I believe in this one God.” And therefore, he became a minority in his society. He was being persecuted.
LEWIS SMEDES: How do you know that?
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Oh, because I look at the story in the Koran about the idols and Abraham and — when he went even against his father. Because his father would not leave the worship of idols, and instead follow- and follow the worship of God. And so he went through a great pain on his own. It was his own journey, before God ever talked to him. Saying, “I found the true God.” And then God talked to him, and gave him his blessings. You see, in — in the Koran, it’s very clear that, if you are in a society, and you have different moral values than the rest of the society, you either try through democratic means, you know, to establish your point of view, or if it becomes impossible for you, then pack and leave. And that’s exactly what Abraham did.
LEWIS SMEDES: That’s very illuminating to me, Azizah, because I had always read this story as — as — as a story of of Yahweh coming to somebody and taking him totally by surprise. And the only way that Abraham knew, in — in as I have always understood, that this was really God, is — is this. That when God comes, you’ll know. How do you know it was God? “When he comes, you’ll know.”
BILL MOYERS: Did it trouble you that God chose a man like this? I mean forgetting —
Setting aside for a moment-
LEWIS SMEDES: Oh, oh no —
BILL MOYERS: —this description of — of Abraham, here is a man not all that -appetizing, who hides behind (COUGH) the skirts of his wife, who resorts to trickery and cunning.
LEWIS SMEDES: I’m — I’m not happy that Abraham was not more perfect. But I’m awfully happy that his imperfections are — are part of the story.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yeah, I would’ve been (UNINTEL)
LEWIS SMEDES: That’s so reassuring.
EUGENE RIVERS: Absolutely. Absolutely.
LEWIS SMEDES: It’s the best part of the story to me.
EUGENE RIVERS: I mean, it — it really is quite reassuring that such a flawed individual could be used.
LEWIS SMEDES: Yeah. And we don’t have to put him out to be a monster.
EUGENE RIVERS: Oh yeah.
LEWIS SMEDES: He was — he was probably a better person than I am.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: There is no story —
LEWIS SMEDES: And I’m happy — but that’s not —
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: If you don’t start out at a low point, and then make it — perfect yourself to a hero. And so I think that everyone takes for granted that this is about faith. That the — story is about faith. But how do we make Abraham an interesting character.
LEWIS SMEDES: But the interesting character, for me, is — is Yahweh, is God.
ELIZABETH SWADOS: But you see, I think we make those characters interesting. It’s a great story that way.
LEWIS SMEDES: That’s the beauty of the story, isn’t it? Right.
ELIZABETH SWADOS: So we can say — we can say — you know, Abraham is this and that. But — you know — so I’ll go — this macho pig — you know, but that’s me. Right. You know, whereas you’re more sympathetic towards him. But that is the beauty of a great story.
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: But let me answer the question. What is the moral of the story and I think a moral of the story is about modesty. We should not be sitting here in judgment over Abraham. And there’s a very good reason for that. We didn’t go through what he went through. We weren’t persecuted in foreign lands. We weren’t immigrants — in the se — in the sense he was. And those commun —
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: I mean, we are immigrants, but not in the sense he was, in very hostile cultures.
EUGENE RIVERS: Well actually, maybe-
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: And he had to go through all these difficulties, and find ways to protect himself, whether even in his own tribe, or later in Egypt. And — and that — you could really face a difficulty to the extent that you might say, “This is not my wife, this is my sister.” And then that — hope that God will come through and help you.
LEWIS SMEDES: So — somebody said that — Abrahams’ — weakness in Egypt must be understood by remembering that, to him, the promise was at stake. He wasn’t just trying to save his own skin. He was doing what he thought he had to do —
ELIZABETH SWADOS: But — but you see —
LEWIS SMEDES: —to keep the promise to him intact.
ELIZABETH SWADOS: I think, to move forward, to use the books for us today, is not to make a judgment that makes us turn away, but it’s not right to pass on to contemporary men and women the kind of subordinate — you know, you can use it accept, forgive, be even in awe of, be human — you know, humble.
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Be saddened by it.
ELIZABETH SWADOS: — Be saddened by it.
ELIZABETH SWADOS: But you can — you do not have to let people use it today as an excuse to treat women as certain way. And that’s — that —
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Absolutely.
EUGENE RIVERS: Right.
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Oh yeah.
BILL MOYERS: But isn’t this is a classic theme of stories through the ages? The women who makes the sacrifice for the success of her husband?
ELIZABETH SWADOS: Yes, I, I think that’s rather unfortunate. (CHUCKLE)
EUGENE RIVERS: But see — but see — here again —
BILL MOYERS: But real? In this world?
EUGENE RIVERS: And see — and then — then — the other piece of this is, we are in — at the end of the 20th century, viewing m — much of this context through a 20th century lens. And then superimposing that on a
very complex historical and political and cultural context that we don’t fully appreciate.
BURTON VISOTZKY: We don’t — we don’t have a lot of choice in that matter. The — lens we have, in a way. I mean — I specialize. My- my study is what the rabbis and the church fathers- how they read this. But I’m keenly aware of the fact that, even as I do that, I’m reading the rabbis and the church fathers through my 20th century lens. Azizah reads it as a Muslim. And as a Muslim, and with Koranic tradition, she must read Abraham in a sympathetic way.
LEWIS SMEDES: And I read it through Christian theologian —
BURTON VISOTZKY: And if I limited myself only to rabbinic reading, I would also read Abraham in a very sympathetic way. But the fact of the matter is, is that the rabbis know that there’s two kind of readings. There is rabbinic reading. There is Midrash. But then there’s also what the story says.
EUGENE RIVERS: Right.
BURTON VISOTZKY: In the story we read, I read a lot closer with Liz. I mean, it — it — what we read — A — Abraham says to Sarah, as they’re about to go into Egypt, “Pray say that you’re my sister. So that it may go well with me on-your account, that I myself may live thanks to you.” I wouldn’t mind if he said, “Say you’re my sister so I may live.” Then I’d say, “Lew, you’re right. He was worried about preserving his life, preserving the promise.” But this — “it may go well with me on your account,” that means, “I’m gonna profit.” And the proof of that’s just three verses later.
LEWIS SMEDES: He did.
BURTON VISOTZKY: It went well. Right? Sheep, oxen, donkeys, servants, maids, she-asses, camels. This guy made a fortune off of that transaction.
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Well, I can see, for one reason, why I’m more sympathetic than you are. I don’t have that story to deal with. (LAUGHTER)
ROBERT ALTER: That helps a lot.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: But as a —
BILL MOYERS: It’s not in the Koran. No, it’s not in the Koran.
EUGENE RIVERS: But — what would you do if you — if it were in the Koran, so that you didn’t have to say, “Well it’s not in my book?”
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Well I know what the prophet said.
EUGENE RIVERS: Let’s intellectually play with that.
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: What the prophet said, is that a woman, regardless of the hardship she’s in — would never essentially use herself to get out of that situation. Okay? Use herself as a commodity. I think here, I’m seeing Sarah used as a commodity in some sense. And it troubles me. And I’m trying to find ways of explaining how this could happen. But again, as I’m saying — you know, this is not part of my tradition.
EUGENE RIVERS: What if it is — what if it is what it is? What-what if it is that —
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: I would have to say, if it is part of my tradition, I will have to say. This is a guy who is really upright, who — who-stood against his own people, even moved out of his land because of what he believed in. He has had one problem after the other, and kept his faith in God. And that’s why
God blessed him so much, and blessed his offspring-except those who would engage in injustice. There was an exception in the promise, according to the Koran., And now, he is in this situation in Egypt. How could you reconcile the whole history of Abraham with this one story?
EUGENE RIVERS: See, I think —
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: See, you mu — there must be something we don’t know.
BURTON VISOTZKY: It’s not clear to me that the whole history of Abraham — at least this — as it’s told in the Hebrew Bible, is so inconsistent with this story. Abraham does a lot of things that leave us to wonder about his moral judgment. But — I — I’d like to — I wanna focus here — I mean — he takes her into Egypt. You — you — you try to rescue Sarah very graciously. You said that in — in the Koranic version, she’s not touched by Pharaoh. In this version —
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Not Koranic. In the Midrash touched — the story is-
BURTON VISOTZKY: We don’t know in this version, what happens. It’s real interesting. It’s very vague. We don’t know if she is touched by Pharaoh, or if she isn’t. In rabbinic Midrash, the rabbis, when they say Pharaoh was hit — smitten with a plague, the rabbis — you know, almost with a twinkle in their eye, say, “Yeah and the plague was impotence.” But — (LAUGHTER) so thus saving Sarah.
BILL MOYERS: So what’s the Bible trying to tell us here?
BURTON VISOTZKY: Well one lesson Abraham seems to have learned is, sell your wife, you make a lot of profit.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: I don’t think so.
BURTON VISOTZKY: And God saves them.
EUGENE RIVERS: No, no, no.
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: No, I don’t have the second story in the Koran.
LEWIS SMEDES: I — I’m really thankful for anything you can do to-to rescue Abraham from — from our easy judgment. This story is not a story that teaches a moral. This story is a story that explains the origin of three great religions. That’s what this story is about. It’s about the maker of the universe coming in — in a total encounter with a human being. Not as divinity rising out of the human being, and not as a droplet from some divine faucet. But as another, saying, “I am going to do something with you.” And — when Abe — when we see Abraham doing all sorts of things that we find — certainly uncomplimentary to him —
ELIZABETH SWADOS: Well I — I — I’m — I’m sorry-
LEWIS SMEDES: Okay, that’s not what the story is about.
ELIZABETH SWADOS: But why are we not looking at it in commentary from Sarah’s point of view? You see? Because at it from Sarah’s point of view, there’s many different ways. But let’s just examine one way, which is that she’s, like, taken into a land, she’s given over to a — a Pharaoh. What’s Sarah thinking during all of this, if you choose to look at it.
And Sarah is — because the woman is the second one to arrive on Earth in terms of Adam and Eve, Sarah is kind of gaining patience, gaining wisdom. Sarah is, to me, the matriarch. She is my mother. Because she is the one who had to endure. She is the first one. Eve, it’s a different story. She was kind of lusty, she went for the apple, you know, she kind of (LAUGHTER) went for it. But Sarah had to endure what a woman has to endure when her husband becomes a patriarch. She was the first woman to really, really be the watcher as the society went into a patriarchy. And I have to say that no matter what class, no matter what hypocrisies she may have had, she was still the second class citizen in the relationship. And I think that — that to completely link this Abraham story, is to take away something that’s very important about it.
BURTON VISOTZKY: I think that the rabbis ask questions like that. They don’t normally ask questions about women. But I think that it’s within rabbinic tradition for us to have to ask that. Where’s Sarah in this story? So let me give you one read of Sarah. Sarah is an equal partner in faith. Sarah also hears the promise, and Bible, that she’s childless. And she’s really agonizing. “How do I provide Abraham with the seed God promises?” Maybe Egypt provides her an opportunity. Maybe in her passion, in her neurosis, whatever it is, she thinks, “Maybe I’m meant to be with Pharaoh. Maybe that’s how I get with seed. Maybe that is one way. I mean, after all, he’s a prince. You know, he’s Pharaoh, King of Egypt. Maybe I should be bearing that seed.” Maybe she goes willingly, as a partner to Abraham, to try and fulfill the promise. That could be one reading.
BILL MOYERS: Well I find — I actually find Abraham’s behavior more understanding than I do Sarah’s silence. I mean, here she is subjected to this deception and trickery. She’s playing it — either she’s doing it willingly, or she feels she has to do it. She is cast into Pharaoh’s harem. She is passed off as something she isn’t. Her husband is hiding behind her skirts. And yet, in this brief account, we have no indication what is going through her mind.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: I think — Sarah’s actually exercising power in ways that she knows. And that she’s consolidating her —superiority over Abraham, by saying, “You-
BILL MOYERS: This is a woman who’s humiliated Bharati — she’s been humiliated. Her honor is being put on the — on the —
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes.
LEWIS SMEDES: Where does her superiority come out? (OVERTALK)
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: That — “You owe me one. So that when we go — get out of this situation, then I’m gonna call in the chips.” (LAUGHTER)
EUGENE RIVERS: In the relationships between men and women are too complex. There are too many covert and indirect ways that reciprocity is played out, to create the simplistic — see, I mean — I — I think that’s part of the poverty of contemporary discussions around men and women. You get these very simplistic kinds of dichotomist relationships. Everything is very simple now. It’s hierarchy oppression, right? You know-it’s and human relations, in general, are much more complex and ambiguous than that. Power is displayed and exercised in too many subtle ways. So in the case of Sarah —
ELIZABETH SWADOS: But — but you — you know better than that
ROBERT ALTER: Well, Bharati was suggesting that in a way —
ELIZABETH SWADOS: But also, you know better than anybody, that the real power is a roof over the head, goods, money. You know — heirs to —
EUGENE RIVERS: Absolutely.
ELIZABETH SWADOS: And — and that’s what the men are given in the Bible. Throughout, they get it first.
EUGENE RIVERS: Okay — absolutely.
ELIZABETH SWADOS: So if Sarah’s exercising her power subtlety, as a victim to be humiliated, that is a big problem.
LEWIS SMEDES: But I — can’t discover power that she’s using. Her -passivity, and her silence in the story, is just taken for granted.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: But she’s so feisty.
LEWIS SMEDES: This is what you might expect of somebody-
BURTON VISOTZKY: I wanna come back to -
BILL MOYERS: Later on she’s quite feisty — But you’ve made me think of something I hadn’t thought of before.
BILL MOYERS: Are you suggesting that, just as Lewis said, Abraham submits to this cunning and trickery — he plays the shell game because he wants to keep the promise, the covenant intact. But maybe she is — knowledgeable of the fact that, because she is barren. She — she may yet have that chance to have the child. At least, this could be in her mind.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes. Yes. She knows that she’s participating in this scheme. Except that scheme is the wrong word to use here. Because it’s got a higher mission, and
BURTON VISOTZKY: A divine plan.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: —a divine plan.
EUGENE RIVERS: It’s more complicated than that. Here’s a guy, starts out with nothing. He gets this call. It may have come from within. The within may have met the external somewhere in between. Sarah, as I told you, when I’ve had conversations with young guys about the story, and I said, well let’s imagine that Abraham’s Richard Pryor and he’s trying to figure it out. Here’s a weak moment. Now, looking 20th century now, should Abraham have said, let’s tell the lie? Well, one of the guys said, well man, were the Egyptians coming down on him? What would have happened to Abraham had he not lied about what his relationship was to the woman?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: That’s my point.
EUGENE RIVERS: And in fact — So an oppressed individual says, listen, I can imagine lying. I can see that. A couple of dudes — Let’s complicate this situation right? Here’s a black dude in the inner-city. He’s got a white wife, an interracial marriage. A couple of cops, Egyptian cops, roll up on the brother with the white wife. Now this guy’s not a complete fool. Yo baby, we work together. You’re my boss. You’re not my wife now, because if you’re my wife, you may be a widow by the end of this evening. Now is that exploitation?
ROBERT ALTER: The curious thing about this story is, of course, the thing that we’ve all built our readings on, Sarah’s silence. You can say, if you’re a little glib, well, it’s a patriarchal narrative and — and — and the viewpoint is the the male viewpoint and so forth. Now there — there is some truth in that. But-
ELIZABETH SWADOS: Thank you —
ROBERT ALTER: No, but I think it’s a truth that has to be qualified
ELIZABETH SWADOS: Well, I’ve been qualifying.
ROBERT ALTER: Yeah.
BILL MOYERS: In what sense?
ROBERT ALTER: Well, the women’s point of view is not suppressed.
It’s kept in the background. And allowed kind of stroboscopic revelations. The curious thing about Sarah is that we’re waiting — well, how does she feel about all this? And — and the story teller withholds this information from us, I think quite deliberately. And the first time — maybe the only time apart from dialogue, where we get an — any insight into Sarah, is something like a five, six- or six word interior monologue. And that occurs when she overhears the promise of the angel that she’s going to have.
ELIZABETH SWADOS: Could I say one thing?
ROBERT ALTER: Yeah.
ELIZABETH SWADOS: There’s one very important thing about Sarah that you’re bringing up, that I think is — you may not agree with it. But you’ve led me to it. Which is that Sarah — as Abraham is the father, Sarah is in some ways the mother. And one of the things that that comes along with her is something very important to people, which is the sense of waiting. It doesn’t all come at once to her. It’s not a revelation. It’s not a call, like it is to Abraham. And she didn’t get the billing, if it was a call to her. But there is a sense of waiting. Ninety years to have a kid, you know. She waits, she waits, she waits. Things come in increments to her. And I think that — that whether it’s male or female who views this character, the sense of not revelation, not this, not that, but to wait, and to wait with a sense of irony, you know? You should, you know, but — but it’s — it’s — irony, because I feel, personally, it’s like 90 years — Oy. You know?
That’s right. (LAUGHTER)
ELIZABETH SWADOS: Or it’s like — you know, okay. I’m going to go into Pharoah’s — harem. I might sleep with him, I might not, Abraham’s going to be all right. He might not be. Ugh. You know? Which is — in — in a strange way, the — the — the notion of waiting has a lot to do with Sarah.
ROBERT ALTER: But I — I — I agree with that I — I — I think it’s a real insight into the story. And what I would add is that when we finally get this brief revelation of her viewpoint, the — the waiting is rooted in her bodily experience as a woman. That she says these few words. She — she says “after being shriveled, will I bear children.” And then she adds another little clause. “And my husband is an old man.”
BURTON VISOTZKY: That will tell you a lot about their marriage in general.
ROBERT ALTER: Excuse me. It’s not, will I bare children after being shriveled. Will I have pleasure and my husband is an old man. It’s hard not to see some kind of conjugal accusation.
LEWIS SMEDES: I’m picking up from what you were talking about when you used that wonderful word “waiting.” God came to Abraham with this promise, and on the basis of that promise, Sarah agrees to go with him to God only knows where.
BILL MOYERS: He wasn’t sure.
LEWIS SMEDES: And God doesn’t come across, and she’s getting very old. Waiting is probably — waiting with hope is the hardest kind of waiting.
ELIZABETH SWADOS: Do you know the poem by Delmore Schwartz about Sarah? I won’t recite the whole thing, but I’ll just tell you how it begins. “The Angel said to me, ‘Why are you laughing? Laughing? Not me. Who was laughing? I did not laugh. It was a cough. I was coughing. Only hyenas laugh. I was not laughing.” And then the second, I’ll just do the second verse. “It was the cold I caught. Nine minutes after Abraham married me when I saw that I was slender and beautiful, more and more slender and beautiful. I was also clearing my throat.”
ROBERT ALTER: That’s great.
LEWIS SMEDES: I need to say something about Abraham as the good guy. (LAUGHTER). From the Christian tradition. To us, Abraham is our father, but not because he’s a good guy. Because he is the reminder that our relationship with the Almighty is a relationship defined by grace.
And Abra — Abraham being this ambiguous creature and ambivalent creature is — is the reminder that what really matters is not whether he’s good or bad or heroic or cowardly or whatever. What really matters is God the Almighty pursues his designs for the welfare of the human family with people like that. With people like us, in other words.
EUGENE RIVERS: Right. Right.
LEWIS SMEDES: That’s the significance in the Chris — Christian tradition.
BILL MOYERS: Do you see Abraham’s faith as a model for your life?
LEWIS SMEDES: His faith is a model for me in this sense, that if I, in the end, want to know whether I am at peace with my maker, the answer has to be found in the grace of the maker and not in the quality of the person. That — in that sense, it’s a model.
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: No, I totally agree. And that’s also part of the Muslim tradition, because it is in the Koran. God can extend His grace to whoever he wishes. Even the most sinful. We do not know God’s logic. He will only allow us to understand what he wants us to understand. But he gave us a lot of equipment to deal with the world. A lot of logic, a lot of heart. And we have to do the best with that. But God is not — is not stopped from thinking one of the most miserable, sinful people amongst us, and say, “I’m gonna save this person. I’m going to — show my grace to this person.” Because God can do anything God wants. And that’s God’s grace. He can choose to give it to us, or not to give it to us. But I count on His justice and his mercy.
BILL MOYERS: Is that.. foreign to you? —-
BURTON VISOTZKY: Well, it’s not foreign, but there’s two sides to it.
That is certainly one side. And I mean, Azizah alluded to the other side. There is the God of mercy, the God who bestows grace, and that we, as creatures — really have no choice in the matter.
We — we either receive the grace, or we don’t- or we’re ungrateful. We don’t know that we’ve received it. But on the other hand — there is this God of justice. And that God of justice demands things of us. If we just submit, then we no longer have any responsibility for our own lives. And Judaism demands that — that we be responsible as well.
That’s why there’s law in Judaism. That’s why there are commandments. We have a way to behave that God expects things of us. Sometimes we stray from that path. And when we do, boy then we hope God is merciful. And we hope for God’s grace. And you’re right. Even if there is a person who willingly disobeys, we still assume God has the right to take that sinner and save them, because that’s God.
ROBERT ALTER: Following the Bible, the — the Jewish tradition tends to view both human relations and — human divine relations as contractual -You- have a-’cause that’s — that’s what a covenant is.
LEWIS SMEDES: Grace is not contractual.
BILL MOYERS: You go, and I’ll —
BURTON VISOTZKY: Right. No, on that I agree with you.
BILL MOYERS: You go, and I’ll make you a blessing.
ROBERT ALTER: Right, right, right.
LEWIS SMEDES: But, but, I — I had an experience with my family last Christmas Eve, that suddenly became a kind of parable of grace for me. My children are adopted. And we were spending four days in — a mobile home at the beach. And we wondered how this was going to work. And on Christmas Eve, we were sitting around. And it suddenly dawned on me that none of us in this family is blood related. There is nothing that holds us together except what you were calling grace.
ROBERT ALTER: Uh Huh. (AFFIRM) That’s interesting. But it — it struck me that there were — three dimensions to that relationship. The primary relationship between me and them, and Doris and them, was no matter what — ugly, beautiful, achieving, failing — they were my children. Forever and ever and ever, they were my children.
That’s the grace of acceptance. I think adoption is kind of a parable of — a grace of acceptance. There’s also a grace of pardon. When they have done things that I think are wrong- especially if I thought they were wrong to me, I-I — I acted in grace by forgiving them. But grace has another dimension to it. Not — not only that it is accepting, but that it is empowering. When my kids are absolutely sure of — of my loyalty to them, that is power.
EUGENE RIVERS: That’s right.
LEWIS SMEDES: That — that frees them up, so that — that’s-that — that would be my definition of grace. The- the — the three dimensions: pardon, forgiveness, acceptance and power.
BILL MOYERS: Which brings me to the whole notion of being chosen. —-How do you relate this to God choosing Abraham and Sarah and —
LEWIS SMEDES: I think that there is a difference — in role. Because God didn’t choose Abraham only to be his child, or to be his person. God chose Abraham for a — a unique, unrepeatable — event. And that it was, to begin this new romance with the human family.
BILL MOYERS: Let me bring this back to our story, because here’s the problem in chosenness. It’s that it’s wonderful if you’re chosen, but it’s hell if you’re not. Just take the example as we know it here from Pharaoh. Pharaoh is tricked by Abraham and Sarah. He takes Sarah, believing that she really is Abraham’s sister, and it’s okay for him to sleep with her, or have her in his harem. Because he’s tricked, a plague is sent on Pharaoh and his people. The unchosen people become the suffering victims of God’s playwriting here. So being unchosen is not as — I mean, the — the idea of chosenness has all kinds of —
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: But there is rival — But you can choose to be chosen. because it’s not an exclusive circle. You can choose to carry that burden. You can choose to believe in God. And therefore you’ll be one of the circle.
BILL MOYERS: Well Abraham chose it. He accepted it. He — he played out the plot that he’d been assigned, and-
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: And Pharaoh was recognizing his own god. You see there- are many, many chosen groups. And it’s how is my chosen group going to negotiate with someone else’s chosen group? And surely Pharaoh thought of himself as having been picked by whomever he held allegiance to.
ELIZABETH SWADOS: Well, maybe they —
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Now wait — wait a minute. And so if — there are these many — chosen groups, then how you cooperate, and how you realize, how you use your own brains and ingenuity to realize the mission that your chooser has given you — surely becomes
BILL MOYERS: Yes…but-here’s a case where this God became the enforcer for this chosen, Abraham. And —
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Because the other guy’s chooser –
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Yes, but —
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: —wasn’t able to — pull it off.
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: But look — it is — if — if it is hard to be not chosen, I think it’s even harder to be chosen. (CHUCKLE) I mean, look at the suffering that Abraham and the others went through —
ROBERT ALTER: Hear! Hear!
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: — just to defend their faith. Just — just — just to stick to what they believe in.
BURTON VISOTZKY: Abraham does something that seems to be patently unfair; unfair to Pharaoh, unfair to Sarah and profits enormously by it. I suspect God’s intervention is what allows that. This is a fellow who — basically pulls a scam on Pharaoh and it’s a scam that involves selling his wife — not nice. And at the end of the chapter, he’s very wealthy. And he’s wealthy basically, because God has acted as his protector.
BILL MOYERS: Is it — is it — is it reasonable to conclude from this that God is above it all? That the character and plight of human beings mean nothing to him? That what is more important to God is His purpose in history, which is always unfathomable?
BURTON VISOTZKY: Well,
BILL MOYERS: you made a —
LEWIS SMEDES: But wait a minute — not — not-
LEWIS SMEDES: Not totally unfathomable. The — the process and the discreet events in the process become a mystery. But — but the goal is not a mystery. The goal in — in — in the chosenness of Abraham is to bring blessing to everybody. The goal is to create a happy ending. The goal is to bless all nations. So in that sense, the call to Abraham, or Abraham’s being chosen, was the beginning of a medium through which all of us could be chosen.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: But happy ending for who?
AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Exactly.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: For everybody?
LEWIS SMEDES: For everybody who was willing to be chosen.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Um Hmm (AFF.) Meaning who?
EUGENE RIVERS: That is the goal —
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Even for the unchosen — the non-chosen, the deselected?
EUGENE RIVERS: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: Burt —
BURTON VISOTZKY: That presumes that Pharaoh is in fact protesting in good faith. If Pharaoh genuinely is a nice guy, and God has kind of come in and beat him up, because he acted in innocence, then God’s will be God’s will- we have no way of knowing it. But if Abraham’s opposition is correct, if -Abraham actually.-.going into Egypt, knew what he was doing, if Abraham said, “You know, these guys are gonna kill me. This is how they work. They see a woman, they kill the husband, right?” If Abraham is correct about that, then God hasn’t chosen a guy be — for no reason at all. God has favored Abraham and punished Pharaoh because Pharaoh acted immorally. And Abraham acted to save his and his wife’s skin.
EUGENE RIVERS: Pragmatically —
BILL MOYERS: We don’t know that from the record we have. There’s nothing in the story.
BURTON VISOTZKY: But it’s, I — I agree with you. And certainly I’m one to give you the other side — reading.
ROBERT ALTER: But I think there is something in the large context of the story. In other words, I think these writers were realistic enough to know that nobody in history — the history is a very variegated medium. And nobody in history is ever always the — the oppressor or always the oppressed. And there’s this future of — of enslavement that — that they’re headed for. And that alignment suggests maybe that Pharaoh’s motives in — in this story are — are not the highest.
LEWIS SMEDES: And don’t forget that the chosen become the poor and the oppressed.
EUGENE RIVERS: That’s right. That’s right.
LEWIS SMEDES: Those are the ones —
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: But that’s a rather, a comfortable way of being poor and oppressed. And I would rather vote for-
LEWIS SMEDES: Oh no.
BILL MOYERS: How would you vote?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: That all persons are created equal. And that everyone, no matter what class, gender, race are chosen. And therefore I see this — you know, this book is very important to me. The Genesis is very important to me. And I see this as a way of metaphorizing the idea of cooperation with God.
BILL MOYERS: The way of turning it into —
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Not submitting to God’s will where God is-absolutely intractably visualized. But to cooperate, to recognize when you hear the call, when you see a vision. And then to make sure that you see yourself as chosen.
BURTON VISOTZKY: One of the ways I read the echoes that — that the foreshadowing in Genesis of Exodus, is that in some way, what happens in Genesis precipitates Exodus. That is, to say for every innocent act — innocent, that means unthinking act of — of oppression that Abraham and Sarah do, that Abraham oppresses Pharaoh, that Sarah oppresses Hagar, one book later, the Jews are paid back in spades for it. That — that — you know, no act goes unpunished, even if it takes a number of generations.
EUGENE RIVERS: That’s right.
BURTON VISOTZKY: There’s some kind of divine equation that keeps account of all that. So we have to be real careful about our chosenness. We do have to understand that if we’re generations later. And remember, I mean, this is —
BILL MOYERS: Sins of the fathers.
BURTON VISOTZKY: — this is a constant motif.
EUGENE RIVERS: Oh absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: Visited upon the son.
BURTON VISOTZKY: Well, it says explicitly in Deuteronomy, I think it is. Don’t oppress the stranger, because you are strangers in the land of Egypt. You gotta have some memory of that, that you can always be on the other side of the coin.
EUGENE RIVERS: See that —
BURTON VISOTZKY: And as long as you know that, then you have to have a sense of justice.
EUGENE RIVERS: See, my sense is that as we read the story, Abraham is not the guy on top. He’s the guy on the bottom. He’s the one that’s saying — that look, the power guy is Pharaoh. ‘”You know, it’s not Pharaoh ducking from Abraham. Saying tell, you know, Pharaoh — you know Pharaoh telling his wife “tell Abraham I’m your sister.” No, it’s flipped. Abraham is the marginal individual- he is the other. Who pragmatically, for whatever reason —
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Who however has insinuated himself into the Pharaoh’s land.
BILL MOYERS: Well, deceptively so-
EUGENE RIVERS: Oh, absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: —by lying to him.
LEWIS SMEDES: What this dialogue between you two, I think illustrates is that being chosen is always — an ironic or paradoxical extreme.
EUGENE RIVERS: Yeah.
LEWIS SMEDES: It’s a privilege. Hey, who am I to have been chosen? It’s a burden. What am I supposed to do? It’s a terrible seduction. I’ve been chosen —
RIVERS: That’s right —
LEWIS SMEDES: Therefore, therefore I can be overbearing to people —
EUGENE RIVERS: That’s right, that’s right.
LEWIS SMEDES: — and it’s —
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: It’s also about pride that if I’ve been chosen-
LEWIS SMEDES: I must be better.
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: I need — no, that I need all these deselected people otherwise how can I be chosen?
LEWIS SMEDES: That’s the seduction.
BILL MOYERS: There’s this wonderful quote of — of the great Jewish figure, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who says, “all human history as described in the Bible can be summarized — ‘God in search of man’.” And I — talk for a few minutes about what this discussion — what the biblical literature, what this story lead you to see as the character of God.
LEWIS SMEDES: This shows me that the maker of the universe is not content to watch the universe of people in their anguish and their suffering and in their evil. God makes a move. God takes the initiative. “However long it takes or whoever will be my servant, I am going to bless the people.” Through Abraham, God began his movement of blessing. Now I think we all asked ourselves — my land, it’s taking him a long time. Why? If he wants to bless us, why does he allow these terrible things to happen? But the story says, God makes a move to bless.
BILL MOYERS: So you see the nature of God as involved — engaged-
LEWIS SMEDES: In — involved for good —
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: I think of — God as really a geo-physical large force. Which in Hinduism would be called “Brahmin.” (PH) Which — you can metaphorize as convenient to you. Worship in any image or in any way that you want. And my personal — visualization is of a God who loves me. And that no matter what I do God is going to help me, see me through and make it all work out and salvation is understanding that this isn’t- the only world and this d:-sn’ t :the only, life that one has. And that — the moment you see the larger picture and in a sense this is what I want out of — Abraham’s story in this part of our conversation is to realize that he was chosen person is not the only person whose lives matter. But that there are all these other peoples out there with whom he’s going to have to relate and whose welfare he’s also going to have to think of.
BILL MOYERS: You — you —
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: So it’s a change in perspective.
BILL MOYERS: You see the character of God as — as inclusive?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Despite the story?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: Despite the story?
BHARATI MUKHERJEE: Yes.
BURTON VISOTZKY: In the Genesis story…there is a very clear notion of a transcendent God. God who is beyond human norms of ethics. God comes in and blows away Pharaoh because God has chosen Abraham and it may be beyond our kin in a very Jobian sense. It may be somewhere else. On the other hand, this is God who desperately wants relationship with humanity with God’s own creatures.
And God learns every generation anew- partic — I mean, the Abraham story I think really exemplifies it. But Adam and Eve exemplify it and Isaac exemplifies it and Jacob and Sarah and Rachel. That every time, every human created in God’s image is still a little different. And God — God has to learn all over how to have this relationship. It may be that this is the God of the Universe, creator of heaven and earth and I’m just a mere creature. On the other hand, if there’s gonna be this love relationship, we’ve gotta learn each other. And God has to grow in the relationship. And God does that with Abraham and Sarah. We just looked at the very beginning of their relationship to — where’s God’s relationship to Abraham is crude, God’s relationship to Sarah is not verbalized at all. The story’s gonna unfold and as it unfolds all the characters grow. God among them.
BILL MOYERS: God keeps trying. (LAUGHTER) I mean, that’s —that’s to me, the character
ELIZABETH SWADOS: I think —
BILL MOYERS: —character in your play.
ELIZABETH SWADOS: I was just —
BILL MOYERS: Not the director.
ELIZABETH SWADOS: This is a God that changes costumes, changes character. Change — it’s the same God. But boy, does He or She change. He changes from He to She, you know? And He or She is in the sounds, you know, in the sounds of laughing, waiting, watching, you know? And very, very mercurial, changeable-
LEWIS SMEDES: But with all the changes-
ELIZABETH SWADOS: Constant.
LEWIS SMEDES: —there is constancy.
BURTON VISOTZKY: I- I used to have a teacher, may he rest in peace. When I studied with him, he was in his eighties. He was one of the great Talmudists of the world. And had grown up in the — in the European Yeshivas.
BILL MOYERS: The schools —
BURTON VISOTZKY: Yeah. The — the Talmudic academies of Europe. A really old world Jew. But a man of great piety and enormous learning. And he was fond of recalling a conversation he had with one of our Bible professors, Joachim “Muffs” (PH). And Professor Lieberman, this old man, said to some — my colleague Muffs, he said, “Muffs, who is the most tragic character in the Bible?” And Muffs thought for a while. And said, “You know, Ezekiel.” And Professor Lieberman said, “No — no — no — no, no.”
So Muffs thought a little more. He said “Jeremiah.” And finally Lieberman just couldn’t wait. He said, “No, no, the most tragic character in the Bible is God.” And — and there’s something to be said for that. This is a God who creates a universe. And behold, it is very good. And within a chapter decides he’s gotta destroy it all because it’s really not so good after all. This is a god who sends Abraham on a journey, and the journey turns out to be perhaps far different than God intended it to be. It’s — it’s — he sets the actor moving. And as long as humanity has free will, God has to learn again and again and again how to relate to God’s creatures.
This transcript was entered on April 15, 2015.