This week in the Torah, as we zoom in post-Flood onto Abraham and his family, we get a story that, to its first listeners, would have been remarkably strange. Our ancestors who first recorded and told the tales of the Torah were well acquainted with mythological epics about heroes encountering the gods. The people from whom Abraham fled last week, the inhabitants of Ur Kasdim, where Abraham was born– would have been well versed in the tales of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian king whose revolt against gods and kings was memorialised in the Epic of Gilgamesh. In Abraham’s own time (18th century BCE), the Gilgamesh story was repurposed to tell the heroic tales of Atrahasis in Akkadian– Atrahasis, the wise hero who saved humanity from a divine Flood and the monstrous gods who tried to destroy humanity.
In the Torah, the story is notably different. While surely playing on the ancient near-eastern parallels, the Flood is destructive, but God is filled with pathos and regret. The hero of the flood story, No’ach, turns out to be a complex character, mostly undone by his own actions. Then, this week we meet a new hero, the unassuming Abraham who receives the divine call in this week’s parashah, Lekh L’kha. The poetry of the Hebrew is hard to capture, as usual, but the literal translation of Everett Fox does a pretty good job:
God said to Avram:
From your land,
From your kindred,
From your father’s house,
To the land that I will let you see.
This call- ‘go-you-forth’ as Fox has it here– is not atypical for these heroic stories of the ancient Middle East. What’s unusual is, as Fox points out in his commentary, that, “the classic mythological motif of the journey, where the hero meets such dangers as monsters and giants, has here been avoided.” Abraham doesn’t have any monsters to face– nor does he have to deal with capricious and vindictive deities out to get him as Atrahasis did (though surely the scene of Sodom and Gomorrah is an echo of that). Instead, the foes that Abraham has to face are mostly internal, psychological. Rather than tame wild beasts, he has to learn to tame himself. Rather than try and pass a Sphinx’s riddles, he has to pass God’s test.
Genesis is a brilliant bit of literature– it plays with and adapts the ancient near-eastern Sumerian, Akkadian, and Babylonian literature which preceded and was contemporary with it in clever and unexpected ways. To its first audience, the inversion of expected stories probably had a good deal of shock value. To us, it is so familiar, we often miss what the stories are trying to tell us.
In the case of Abraham and Lekh-Lekha, the story of the hero is not the one we might expect. Our protagonist undertakes a quest, but the monsters he faces are of his own mind, and the antagonist is not a malicious divine force, but his own anger and doubt. All of us are on a journey of some kind, all of us are the hero/ine in our own story– and we too would do well to remember that the monsters of myth are often metaphors, and that the quests we undertake are probably a lot more like Abraham’s than Atrahasis’s.