WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
By: J. R. Hyland
The historical record of the Hebrew people
begins with the story of Sarah and Abraham
who lived circa 1900 B.C. Before the Bible introduces these founding parents of
Judaism, it deals only with events of the far-distant past. There is no way to
even approximate the dates of those pre-historical happenings.
Abraham’s story begins when he and his family
were about to move from their home in Ur, a Sumerian city in Mesopotamia. Extant
records show that Ur had been a thriving metropolitan area for al least 600
years before both Abraham and Sarah were born there.
Located in what is now Southern Iraq, the city stretched out along the Euphrates
River. But until 1929, when an archaeological expedition uncovered its remains,
its name had been lost to historians. There were no fabled stories about Ur,
passed down from antiquity; only the fact that the Bible said it was Abraham’s
home kept its name from being forgotten.
The evacuations at Ur uncovered records of a
large metropolis that, in the Patriarch’s time, was home to at least 300,000
people. And the kind of life its inhabitants lived would seem familiar even to
someone born in the 20th century. Thousands of cuneiform tablets
revealed the details of everyday life. There were records of religious and
family life, of government and business transactions, of legal and medical
In one of the legal buildings scores of
tablets, in orderly stacks, recorded the sentences of those who had passed
through the justice system. Other buildings housed tax records. Although there
was no minted currency, everyone was taxed according to the source of their
income. Huge store-houses received the wool, cattle, oil and agricultural
products that were collected. 
Many different kinds of goods were
manufactured in Ur. A spinning mill was uncovered in which at least a dozen
different styles of clothing were produced. And in this ancient factory, the
names of the women who worked there were recorded. Also recorded was the work
quota of each person, the amount of wool given to work with, and the number of
And then there were the houses. The best of
them had 12 to 14 rooms and were two and three stories high. Built around an
atrium, balconies ringed the homes on three sides. The homes of those who lived
in the fabled city of Babylon, built hundreds of years later, were primitive
dwellings compared to these.
The excavations at Ur called into question the
idea of Abraham as having always been a wandering herdsman. That pastoral
picture made it easier to think of him as a kind of unsophisticated person for
whom it would have been relatively easy to leave familiar surroundings and
journey to an unsure future. But when God told Abraham to leave his home and
journey to a distant land, he was being asked to leave the cosmopolitan life of
Mesopotamia to live in the relatively primitive land of Canaan (Palestine).
The discovery of Abraham’s metropolitan
background came as a surprise to biblical students. There were European scholars
who could not reconcile this new information with their old beliefs about the
Patriarch as a nomad. But Americans, and others familiar with the westward
migrations of the 19th century, had no problem understanding that
those raised in large cities could leave home and family behind and live out the
rest of their lives raising domestic animals or as farmers.
“The Lord said to Abram ’Leave your native
land, your relatives and your father’s home and go to a country that I am going
to show you…and he started out for the land of Canaan’”
But Abraham’s journey to Canaan was
interrupted by a very long stay in Haran. Located in the far northwestern part
of Mesopotamia (modern day Turkey), this should have been a place to stop
briefly and be refreshed for the next leg of the journey to Palestine. But for
some unexplained reason, Abraham stayed there many years and during that time he
amassed considerable wealth.
When God called Abraham to leave his country,
he left with only his immediate family: his father Terah, his nephew Lot, and
But years later, when the Patriarch was told to leave Haran and resume the
journey to Canaan, he was a rich man and had many servants. “Abraham took his
wife Sarah, his nephew, Lot and all the wealth and all the slaves he had
acquired in Haran and they started out for the land of Canaan.”
This time they went all the way. And after a
number of side trips to Egypt, they eventually settled in the fertile Jordan
valley of Palestine. By now, Abraham’s wealth was even greater than it had been
when he left Haran.
This created problems between the Patriarch and his nephew, Lot.
“Abraham left Egypt and went to the southern
part of Canaan with his wife and everything he owned and Lot went with him.
Abraham was a very rich man, with sheep, goats and cattle, as well as silver and
gold...Lot also had sheep, goats and cattle, as well as his own family and
servants. And so there was not enough pasture land for the two of them to stay
together because they had too many animals.”
“Abraham said to Lot choose any part of the
land you want. You go one way and I’ll go the other.”
His nephew chose the best pasture land in the
Jordan Valley and went off to live in the nearest city, which was Sodom. It
turned out to be a really bad choice. The Bible says he was still living there
when both Sodom and Gomorrah disappeared in an explosion of fire and brimstone.
When this catastrophe took place Abraham was
safe in Hebron, many miles to the north. And it was there that once again the
Lord appeared to him and promised him a great inheritance of land and of many
descendants. But after ten years, his wife was still barren and getting on in
years. So Sarah’s slave, Hagar, was selected as a surrogate mother: this meant
that the child would, legally, be Sarah’s.
The child conceived was called Ishmael and for
many years Abraham and Sarah accepted him as the son promised by God. But when
the boy was 12 years old, God once again appeared to Abraham and said that
Ishmael could not be his heir. Before he could become the father of a great
nation, Abraham had to submit to being circumcised.
In biblical times, as in all other times, men
have symbolized masculine potency and power by equating it with the size of the
sexual organ. The ancient worship of the bull was an ongoing testimony to that
equation. And the actual reduction of the male organ that took place in
circumcision, symbolized the need for the reduction of the male power principle
in human affairs. Its totalitarian rule had to be weakened—diminished. That
totalitarian rule, claimed by men and supported by women, rejected the female
virtues of compassion and kindness in the world beyond the home. It considered
those qualities to be signs of weakness that would lead to certain defeat.
By the time the Lord revealed that Ishmael was
not the promised heir, Abraham was quite advanced in years. He had gained some
control over the fires that burned so fiercely in his youth and middle years and
was willing to be circumcised. But then the Lord gave another requirement that
had to be met: Hagar, the slave woman, could not be part of this covenant. The
mother of the promised heir had to be an equal partner of the father. She could
not be a female in bondage to the male. She could not be the slave of the man.
It was Sarah, the free woman, who had to be the mother of the promised child.
Just as surely as Abraham had been called to the Patriarch of the chosen people,
Sarah had been called to be its Matriarch.
Up to this time, Abraham had accepted God’s
decrees without dissent. But when the Lord told him that Sarah was to have an
equal role with him, under the covenant with god, Abraham protested. He pleaded
to have Ishmael, son of Hagar, recognized as the heir of God’s promise. “Oh,
if only Ishmael might live before thee”! he exclaimed.
“But God said no…”
And not only did the Lord say “no” to Hagar, He made it plain that the woman’s
role in the covenant was just as specific as Abraham’s. “Sarah shall be her
name. And I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will
bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall come from
Despite his misgivings, Abraham was
circumcised and one year later, Isaac, child of the covenant, was born to Sarah.
There was much rejoicing over the birth of this son, but there were also many
problems that arose after he was born. The Bible tells of the rivalry that
developed between Sarah and Hagar, the mother of Ishmael.
As the eldest son, Ishmael was bigger,
stronger—more powerful than Isaac. And in biblical times, the murder of siblings
for personal gain was fairly common.
Isaac could be in a dangerous position in such an environment. The ramifications
of this situation became apparent to Sarah at the time her son was weaned.
In patriarchal times the weaning of a child,
at about three years of age, was celebrated with a great feast. The Bible
preserves a record of the banquet that celebrated the end of Isaac’s infancy.14]
He would no longer be at his mother’s side; he would no longer be under her
constant protection. This immediately became a problem. At the banquet, Ishmael
began harassing Isaac. “Now Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she
had borne to Abraham mocking (Isaac).”
All Sarah’s fears for Isaac and for his place
in the scheme of things came to the fore. She knew that Ishmael was going to be
a problem for her son. Besides his advantages of seniority and superior
strength, Ishmael had developed an ongoing relationship with his father. Isaac,
newly weaned, was still his mother’s child. There had been no time yet for him
to develop a strong bond with his father.
After watching Ishmael harass her son at the
party, Sarah gave Abraham an ultimatum: “Get rid of that slave woman and her
son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son
Sarah’s demand that her son, child of the
covenant, be protected against any situation that might endanger him or deprive
him of his inheritance was a blow to Abraham. The Bible reports, “This
troubled Abraham, ‘Don’t be worried about the boy and your slave Hagar. Do
whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that you will have the
descendants I have promised.” 
Although there were very human reasons for the
jealousy and rivalry that existed between Sarah and Hagar, their struggle had a
symbolic meaning that went far beyond personal rivalry. It was an epic struggle
between the forces that would keep women in continued subjection to the male and
the divine plan to have the female of the species evolve to a place of equality
with the male. If the world was ever to reflect the righteousness of God, the
compassion, concern and the care that the woman was allowed to manifest in the
domestic sphere would have to be equally manifested in the world beyond the home.
Because of the covenant that Sarah and Abraham
entered into with God, their spiritual descendants could look to the Lord for
help in their struggle to implement a balanced male/female presence in the
affairs of the world. And it would be through the Judaic-Christian culture—that
traces its spiritual roots to those founding parents—that the equality of women
and men would someday become a reality.
But the Bible also tells the story of the
development of another culture that traces its ancestry back to the time of
Abraham. The Arab world claims its descent through Ishmael, the child born to
Abraham and Hagar, the slave woman.
Ishmael was the child conceived before his father had agreed to reduce the male
presence through the rite of circumcision. And to this day, the female in the
Arab world remains in bondage to the male. She is often physically confined to
the domestic sphere, as well as being kept in social and political bondage. Four
thousand years after the time of Hagar, many females who are descended from the
woman in bondage to the male, continue to remain in that bondage.
The Bible records the ongoing struggle of the
female principle of compassion, nurturing and nonviolence to function in the
world beyond the domestic sphere. That struggle received enormous support in the
proclamations of the Latter Prophets of Israel and found its ultimate validation
in the person and teachings of Jesus Christ.
And 4000 years after Abraham and Sarah became
parents of Isaac, child of the covenant, the struggle to achieve male/female
equality continues in those people, Jewish and Christian, who trace their
religious roots back to Sarah, the free woman.
Events such as the creation of the world and all its inhabitants; the
loss of Paradise; the Great Flood and the destruction of the Tower of
In 2600 B.C., during the first dynasty of Ur, it was already being
called the “Capitol of the World.”
Details of the findings at Ur and neighboring cities are recorded in the
publications of C. L. Wooley, the archaeologist who uncovered the
ancient ruins: Abraham, Recent Discoveries and Hebrew Origins (1936); Ur
Excavations V, The Ziggurat and its Surroundings (1939); Ur of the
This disparity between earlier luxury and later, reduced circumstances
mirrors the uncovering of Pompey whose amenities were far superior to
cultures that appeared much later.
Genesis 12:1, 5 TEV
Genesis 12:1 TEV
Genesis 12:5 TEV
The means of acquiring of this additional wealth might be seen as
exploitative and is described in Genesis 12: 10-20. TEV
Genesis 13: 1, 2, 5, 6
For details of this catastrophe see chapter two of this book.
For a detailed discussion of circumcision and its meaning in biblical
history see SEXISM IS A SIN: The Biblical Basis of Female Equality,
J.R. Hyland, Viatoris Publ.,© 1995
Genesis 17:15, 16 NAS
For example, the attempted murder of Joseph; Absalom’s murder of Amnon,
and King Solomon’s murder of his brother.
Genesis 21:8 NAS
Genesis 21:9. NAS The New Testament also refers to this
incident in Galatians 4:29 TEV, saying that Ishmael “persecuted” Isaac.
Genesis 21:10. NIV
Genesis 21:11, 12. TEV
Genesis 21:13 NIV
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