The ancient Apocalypse of Abraham fills in the blanks, starting with Abraham's traumatic childhood as a misunderstood prodigy. The text details how he grew up in his father Terah's idol workshop, how the young child came to reject idolatry, and how Abraham's new path in life led to violent consequences.
Probably originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic, the book comes to us now in Slavic translations, presumably by way of now-lost Greek versions. But even though the Apocalypse has undergone a series of translations, we still have a pretty good sense of the original.
The narrative opens with young Abraham, probably not yet ten years old, who still lives with his father Terah. Terah, it turns out, is a manufacturer of what the text calls gods. (We of course now call them "idols," but only because we already have Abraham's insight.)
Abraham sees that one such god, Master of Nations, has fallen to the feet of another, Steadfast. Abraham calls his father to help, Master of Nations being too heavy for one person to lift. Together, they work to upright the god, Abraham holding the head, his father the feet. They almost succeed, too, but Master of Nation's head falls off.
Mimicking the biblical account of Abraham's later life, Terah calls out to his son, "Abraham." And Abraham responds, "I am here."
"Get my tools from the house," Abraham's father requests.
Abraham does, and his father fashions a new body for Master of Nations. He affixes it to the old head, creating a new god. He smashes the old body.
Combined with two more stories about the impotence of the gods, this episode leads Abraham to reject the whole notion of gods. This radical decision is, of course, not just a matter of philosophy or theology, but also a perfect representation of what can go wrong between father and son. In denying the power of the gods, Abraham rejects his father and all that he stands for.
Heightening the drama, God punishes Terah for his polytheistic idolatrous ways. God burns Terah alive for his idolatry immediately after Abraham challenges him. And Abraham watches his father die.
In this context, it is perhaps easier to understand, even if not to forgive, a man who — according to the Bible — sends one child to die in the desert (Ishmael is only saved by divine intervention) and who ties up the other and nearly slaughters him.
Having given us insight into Abraham's formative childhood, the text moves swiftly away from Abraham's personal life to the nature of life in general.
The narrative picks up with events that mirror Genesis 15, the so-called "splitting covenant." God calls out, "Abraham, Abraham." And Abraham responds, "I am here."
Here God tells Abraham to gather animals — mammals and birds, as in Genesis — for sacrifice, so that Abraham can learn the secrets of the ages, including "what will happen to those who have done evil and those have done just things."
Though Abraham hears God's voice, he does not see any divine image, a contradiction that terrifies him. This obvious human reaction to hearing a voice and not knowing where it's coming from is surprisingly absent from the Bible. Here we see perhaps a more realistic scenario. God's voice speaks, and the human hearer, unaccustomed to such things, is too stunned even to respond.
So God sends an angel in the form of a human to help Abraham. The angel's name is Yahoel, a fact that Abraham learns as he hears God send him: "Go, Yahoel," and help this man. Abraham also learns that Yahoel's name is connected — in some way that is difficult for us to discern with preciseness — to God's own ineffable name.
As he prepares the sacrifice, according to God's command and with Yahoel's help, Abraham encounters Azazel, that is, the Devil. Yahoel, representing good, admonishes Azazel for trying to tempt Abraham, who, Yahoel insists, is so good that he is untemptable. But the facts tell a different story, because Yahoel teaches Abraham some tricks for warding off evil.
What follows is a detailed and vivid journey, starting with the birds from Abraham's sacrifice literally escorting him out of this world.
It is striking that the sacrificial birds in Genesis serve no obvious purpose. Here we learn that their role is to transport Abraham and Yahoel (though it's not clear why the angel needs them).
Much of the imagery on Abraham's journey is typically apocalyptic: Creatures of Wheels called ophanim in Hebrew, with eyes all around, reminiscent of Ezekiel's visions; Creatures of Life, also called "living creatures"; fiery creatures with four faces and six wings apiece (again, Ezekiel, and also Revelation); a chariot; and indescribable light.
But the Apocalypse of Abraham also adds unique elements, like the poetic text of the long-lost "Song of Abraham," which is referenced in other Jewish and Christian sources, but, apparently, found only here.
All of this imagery is the backdrop for the central question of the second half of the Apocalypse: Is there any reason to be a good person? The Life of Adam of Eve, for instance, doesn't connect happiness or success to good behavior. Worse, most people's daily experience suggests that both good and bad people suffer, just like both good and bad people thrive. Why be good?
In the Apocalypse, Abraham learns that things even out in the end. There is eventual reward for doing good, and eventual punishment for doing evil. Heaven and Hell, we usually call them now. Life is fundamentally fair, according to the Apocalypse, even if we can't directly experience enough of it to see the final reckoning.
Abraham still has a burning question: Why did God give Azazel the power to hurt humans? That is, why are some people bad?
God's answer in the Apocalypse is that people have free will. The only way not to have evil would have been not to give people the power to make decisions. Though many people find the answer infuriating, we might ask if living life would be as fun if people couldn't choose to fall in love, choose to give a gift, choose to offer a kind word, and so forth. If we lived among automatons, would we we value each other's actions?
To drive home the point, God asks Abraham why his father chose evil. In a fit of rationality, Abraham answers that just as he didn't want to listen to his father, his father didn't want to listen to him.
In this way, the Apocalypse comes full circle, connecting Abraham's own turbulent childhood with his quest to understand his life, and perhaps even suggesting that we, too, rely on our own personal experiences as we try to make sense of life.