Reviews - What do customers think about Abraham: The First Historical Biography?
a little genuine insight amidst a lot of confusing speculation Jan 9, 2007
Rosenberg's goal is to speculate about both the historical Abraham and about a variety of ancient individuals who Rosenberg believes wrote the Torah. (Rosenberg assumes the validity of the Documentary Hypothesis, i.e. that the Torah weaves together histories written by several ancient scholars). He goes back and forth between Jewish history, Sumerian tales, and his own guesses about both without supplying footnotes to show which was which. As a result, I had a great deal of difficulty figuring out which parts of this book were from ancient documents and which were Rosenberg's own speculations. In addition, Rosenberg's jargon about "cosmic theater" created more confusion than assistance.
Rosenberg does have an interesting insight here and there, most notably an interesting theory about how Abraham might have thought about God. The Torah states that Abraham had roots in Ur, a city which may have been the ancient Sumerian city of Ur. Sumerians worshipped both intimate personal gods and distant creator gods. So it may be that (as Rosenberg suggests) Abraham discovered the existence of one God by merging the two concepts, somehow deducing that the personal idol of his family was in fact the same as the creator of all existence.
Rosenberg also suggests that Abraham's obsession with offspring (and with marrying Isaac off to a relative) arose not just from a desire to conserve monotheism, but also his origin in a declining Sumerian civilization and his fear that not only his family, but this broader culture, was in danger of collective extinction.
I've been had Jun 21, 2006
Author David Rosenberg describes himself as a poet-scholar. I find that a fair enough description, much better than the description of this book provided by its title.
Rosenberg makes many interesting claims, but provides for the reader (whether well-versed in the history and literature of the Ancient Near East or not), no specific evidence for any of them. This book contains a grand total of zero footnotes. The bibliography at the back is sketchy, consisting of a selection of eighteen books (including _The Book of J_, of which Rosenberg is co-author). Each of these is annotated, some with a précis and some with a full review. Many of these reviews contain quite vitriolic attacks and strong judgments against scholars (e.g., Bottero, Finkelstein, Silberman) whose work is far more valuable than Rosenberg's own. I found this practice offensive, even though I agreed with a few of his points.
His casual assumption of competence in studies of history and religion in the Ancient Near East rankles as well. The claim, for example, that the Sumerian religion consisted entirely of "theater" performed by priests using the statues of the various Dingirrene as if they were so many puppets, is "not even wrong" (to use an assessment from a rather different field), and not consistent with other statements made in the book. When an author goes this far off track in an area I know something about, I then have a lot of trouble taking his statements about other areas seriously.
In summary, any of Rosenberg's conjectures _could_ be true, but this book won't help the reader decide. As far as I can tell, its sole value is to open up interesting questions for competent scholars to pursue, if they don't turn out to be inherently unanswerable.
Biography or Fantasy? May 24, 2006
Rosenberg has written an artful biography of Abraham, the spiritual father of three religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. To do so, he made his own translations of the accounts of Abraham appearing in the Bible, giving them a slightly different spin than in a standard translation.
I found this book irritating, however, because the author did not identify what was factual -- to the extent we know the facts -- and what was speculation. The greatest example of this is his identification of Abraham as a Sumerian, the people who invented civilization. By Abraham's day, about 1,800 BC (or BCE if you prefer), the Sumerian kingdoms had been toppled by Semitic-speaking peoples and their culture was in decline. Rosenberg asserts that Abraham's flight from Ur of the Chaldees (one of the oldest Sumerian cities) was to escape the vulgarities of the Semitic cultures and preserve Sumerian culture and religion. In the process of fleeing the new to preserve the old Abraham had a personal experience with a new deity that would make him the patriarch of three world religions. (The Sumerians, incidentially, became extinct -- although perhaps their relatives still living today are the Dravidians of Southern India.)
It is an attractive theory to link present day religions with the oldest known civilization, the Sumerian, but is it true? Was Abraham a cultured urbanite and a Sumerian in culture if not in race? I have always imagined him as the head of a simple sheep-herding clan that departed from Ur because of oppression or a simple wanderlust. Instead, the author imagines Terah, the father of Abraham, as a statue-maker and Abraham as a man comfortable in the most refined society. Does he have a source other than his own imagination? He cites as a source the scholar "J" who wrote about Abraham one thousand years later and interprets what "she" (also unproven) did not tell us as well as what she did. That's too tenuous, a bit like claiming that a writer of today can recount the Robin Hood legends of a thousand years ago with total confidence in their accuracy.
The book is worth reading as an interpretation of who Abraham was, what he did, and why he did it. It would have been more credible had the author filled in the blanks with argument and reasoning rather than imagination. It's a bit of a stretch to call this book history, but as a learned work of the imagination it is enlightening.