I wish to thank Valerie Russo of the Hachette Book Group for sending along this book with the hopes I might enjoy it. I appreciate the opportunity to review “The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths” by Charlotte Gordon.
This is a different kind of book that those I am used to reviewing. Ms. Gordon is neither a theologian nor biblical expert, her doctorate is in history and literature. Yet, she has managed to write a book that is both extremely good reading, but also deeply researched and scholarly written.
Drawing on the bible itself, plus Midrash, Islamic, and Christian interpretations, archaeology, anthropology, the best of biblical analysis, and other fields, she has woven a story that is both compelling and informative on many levels.
We encounter Abram, later to be known as Abraham, God's chosen one to father a nation, and through the biblical verses and various analysis we trace his life and times in the Middle East. We see both his strengths and his weaknesses, and we learn of the amazing women who perhaps are the true heroines of the story.
We see humanity and relationship in all it's intricacy and simplicity, its purity and it's earthiness. Abraham is not perfect, yet in that we can take comfort, for we are not perfect either. And yet, God in the end placed his confidence in him. Moreover he relied on two women, Sarai and Hagar to complete his plan.
Both women turn out to be stronger, wiser, and more independent that we might have surmised. Both, arguably have their own encounters with God separate and distinct from Abraham's. In fact, Hagar is the first to name God, calling him "El-roi" translated by some to mean, "the God that I have seen."
Ms. Gordon does a masterful job of giving us the myths, and interpretations that have been written over the ages, sometimes to explain in a light favorable to existing conditions, the actions, feelings and intentions of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. Moreover, she has fairly offered to the reader the historical criticism, both majority opinions and more controversial ones that might be used to explain the sparse "facts" that exist in the scriptural text.
For instance, we learn at the beginning that Abram is called out by God to leave his father and homeland and travel to a new home. Tradition claims that his father's home was in Mesopotamia and that Abram took Sarah and his small entourage and traveled to Canaan. She also informs that there are scholarly voices today that would dispute that and claim that Abram probably lived in Canaan and broke from an overlord and moved his small group to the periphery of Canaan to exist apart.
It doesn't matter to the story which you accept, the reader is free to take either tack. And that is what it exciting about this book. It provides both scholarly information and pastoral insights, that are independent of one another. One can find value in more than one way.
One of the most useful methods Ms. Gordon uses, is to infuse the discussion with Islamic interpretation. Surely, they viewed Hagar and Ishmael differently. Whereas Jewish and later Christian commentators tend to portray Isaac as the child of the "covenant", and Ishmael as turned away and some lesser interfering child, Muslims interpret events much differently. In fact, as you might expect, they tend to see Isaac as the "interfering" one.
Read fairly, it is clear that God protected both Hagar and Ishmael and made of him a great nation as well. Ironically, having just read Robert Wright's "The Evolution of God,” we get similar messages. A fair reading of the texts unencumbered by “church” overlay, suggests that there is reason for all three faiths of “the Book” to find common ground.
In other words, there is nothing in the original stories that suggests that there is not natural friendship between God’s two chosen groups, Arab and Hebrew. This is clear in the closing moments when Abraham has died and the two brothers come together in peace to bury their father.
Sarah too is shown a respect in this treatment that is perhaps long overdue in degree. She was abandoned by Abraham twice in the face of powerful kings, introduced as sister rather than wife, and thus subject to being added to the king’s harem. That she managed to emerge due to her own devices and go forth to birth Isaac at an advanced age is testimony enough to her rightful place as matriarch. Indeed, Ms. Gordon shows that there is much evidence to suggest that she was a princess in her own right and wielded great power separate and apart from Abraham. Again, the reader may accept or reject this conclusion with no adverse effect to the story.
This is indeed a thoughtful book. More than that it is lovingly written. Even more than that, it is rather superbly created out of so many disparate disciplines. Ms. Gordon demonstrates a mastery of Midrash, early church fathers, Koran commentary, biblical scholarship and their various theologies in her book.
It is a book useful to both the average person who is interested in their faith and those who teach the faith. It raises issues that are valid to us in marriage and family today. We are pushed to confront our relationship with God, how much on faith, how much we defy, argue, or accede to God as we perceive Him. Does God need to know things from us? How can we reshape our vision of God?
I promise you that you will confront these very questions and others in reading this story of a man and two women and the children they bore. Enjoy!