Thursday, January 8, 2015

Book Write-Up: Abraham and Sarah, by Roberta Kells Dorr

Roberta Kells Dorr.  Abraham and Sarah.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1995, 2014.  See here for Moody’s page about the book.

Abraham and Sarah is Roberta Kells Dorr’s telling of the story of Abraham, from Abraham’s time in Ur to the funeral of his wife and half-sister, Sarah.  Dorr draws from the Book of Genesis, Jewish legend (i.e., the story of Abram smashing his father’s idols and blaming one of the idols), history, and her own imagination.

I did not fact-check every single historical detail in this book, so I do not know how many anachronisms it contains.  I was impressed, however, because Dorr did seem to do some homework in writing this book.  She sets Abram’s departure from Ur and his time in Egypt in the early second millennium B.C.E.  In her story, Abram leaves Ur during the reign of Ibbi-Suen, which is when Elamites invade, and Abram is in Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Amenemhet, a vizier who had ascended to the throne, and who was said to convey teachings to his son.  In the early second millennium B.C.E., Ibbi-Sin did rule Ur when the Elamites raided, and there was an Egyptian ruler, Amenemhat I, who was a former vizier and who was said to teach his son certain principles.  Notwithstanding what Dorr’s story says, I doubt that Amenemhat I’s saying of “Trust no foreigner” was related to an experience that he had with Abram.  Still, the times that Dorr paid attention to historical detail definitely appealed to me.  Moreover, while there are scholars and archaeologists who will disagree with her placing camels in the time of Abram, I was pleased that she at least addressed the issue: she said that domesticated camels were present in some areas but not others.

The best parts of the book, in my opinion, were Dorr’s depictions of Abram’s interaction with other religions, and the questions that entailed.  Are idols lifeless pieces of clay, or do they contain magical properties?  If Abraham is right and other religions are wrong, why do idol-worshipers seem to get their prayers answered, whereas Abram’s wife Sarai still has not conceived a child?  Sometimes, Abram is rather arrogant in his attitude towards other religions; at other times, specifically in his interactions with Egyptians, he is sincerely interested in what they have to say.  In addition, to my surprise, Dorr depicts Abram occasionally looking for meaning in the stars.  Dorr never calls that astrology, though.

Dorr’s characterization was also strong.  Hagar, the Egyptian who would become Sarah’s maidservant, is depicted as a daughter of the Pharaoh who offended pompous Egyptians’ decorum.  Sarah was a bit of a complainer at times, but I could identify with her, on some level: here Abram is, saying a god wants them to do something, and she has practical questions about that, especially when the god seems to take his time coming through for them (though he often does come through, eventually!).  Dorr also adds characters who are not in the Bible: Urim the cheesemaker, his wife Safra, and his Egyptian concubine Warda, all of whom love each other as family.  There were times when Urim’s presence raised questions in my mind—-if Urim and his family were in Sodom, and Lot and his family were in Sodom, would that amount to ten righteous people, the minimum number that would dissuade God from destroying the city?  Dorr also said (from Abraham’s perspective) that Urim was a simple man with a lot of common sense, even though Urim had some of the best insights in the book!  I had other questions about the characters—-how can Ishmael be so friendly, when Genesis 16:12 appears to say that he will be a wild contentious man?  Still, I loved the characters, and I enjoyed following their journeys of wrestling with faith, learning, finding friendship, losing friendships, growing, and finding it in their hearts to forgive.

I would like to thank Moody Publishers for sending me a review copy of this book.

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