In his article Abraham the seer Martin Buber discusses the role of Abraham in the bible, especially in the book of Genesis chapters 12-25. Buber suggests that there is more to Abraham than meets the eye and that he is not just to be taken as the first patriarch of the western religions but also as an individual whose choices would come to affect large nations of peoples.
The essence of the argument of this article is the importance of viewing Abraham as a prophet from the contents of his story and not a result of the context in which it took place. Buber, challenges the nineteenth century belief that they had to be something behind the story of Abraham especially in his role as the patriarch and the father of traditional western religions. He suggests that scholars of the nineteenth century believed that the story of Abraham was probably a myth because “there was no literary documents of the earlier times in Palestine, and they did not consider that tradition maintained itself for years via the word of mouth.” (23)
He goes on to state that nineteenth century scholarship did believed Abraham was a mythical creature. Buber argues against this belief citing scientific, archeological historical and philological sources to prove the existence of Abraham. He asks the major question that the rest of the article focuses in and that is the question of the representation of Abraham in the bible in relation to the bible’s understanding of him as an individual and how the bible intends for its readers to perceive Abraham. (23)
The strongest evidence used by Buber to argue his side that Abraham indeed existed at some point in history is his interpretation of chapters within the book of Genesis. He does this in a profound analytical setting. He suggests that to understand the role of Abraham as a seer, one has to understand the stories within the bible ‘as a doctrine that is nothing but history, and as a history that is nothing but doctrine.’ (26) This suggests that in understanding Abraham we understand the historical doctrine of the bible as one that is based on the history of Israel.
The author, explains the world in which Abraham was born into and the circumstances surrounding it that would make him a primary figure in the history of the children of Israel. He relates the sending of Abraham to that of Adam and Noah which he regards to as failures. According to Buber, Abraham’s story is the first example in which the chosen prophet is told to leave his family and to start a new life somewhere else. This is interesting because up until this point according to the author, the human community was homogenous. (28) This movement of Abraham sets a new course for the history of the chosen people. A riveting dichotomy can be seen between Abraham leaving on his own to start a new life and Moses who is ordered carry out the exodus from Egypt not as an individual but with his nation.
The underlying argument of the article is the portrayal of Abraham as the chosen righteous man, where the chosen nation will originate from. It is after this separation from his family that Abraham finds out he is a prophet. He is depicted as one who mediates between the people and God. As Buber states, in relation to the title given to Abraham, that is only found in one passage through out the bible as a nabi which he defined as “a vocal mediator between heaven and earth” (29). This is the first and last time that this word is used to describe Abraham and it sets the grounds for what he would later become known as, a prophet and a seer, because his actions and decisions had certain impacts on the children of Israel as a nation during the time of Moses.
The author, states the importance of seeing Abraham’s role as a new beginning for people. He does this by looking at the role of scripture and the way in which it narrates Abraham’s story following a very specific format. The first time in which Abraham’s role as a seer is profoundly stated by the author is when he relates Abraham’s mission to what would become the same mission of the children of Israel. He says “the personal mission of Abraham
foreshadows the national mission of Israel” (31). This he supports by arguing that Abraham’s life pattern is the same as the pattern the [people would come to follow.
He compares the representation of Abraham and Noah in the scripture. Buber refers to Abraham as the “second chosen one” and Noah as the ‘first chosen one” (31). They are both characterized as righteous, whole and walking with God. He suggests that these descriptions amongst other command given to Abraham “prefigure with his life, the life of the people destined to become the model community for the nations of mankind” (33) This once again, alludes to the role of Abraham as a seer in the sense that his characteristics are what will come to become the required qualities of a righteous believer.
Abraham as the seer really comes into play as one who prophesizes after he receives the seven revelations that “appear as stations in a progress from trial to trial and from blessings to blessings to blessings” (36). These trials and blessings are seen in the lives of children of Israel from the slavery in Egypt, to the exodus. Using chapters 15 and 17 of the Book of Genesis, Buber suggests that this is the first time the word vision is used in relation to Abraham. “HaShem came unto Abram in a vision, saying: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am thy shield, thy reward shall be exceeding great’ (15) This vision and the relationship between God and Abraham mirrors what will come to pass with Moses and his conversation with God in which he is demanded to go back to Egypt and lead his people out of the land.
The striking features of the article begin to show when Buber begins describing the reasons for why Abraham is a special chosen one. He goes beyond just the average description of what is expected of a prophet but explains why Abraham has a higher status than other prophets and why he is the seer and not Noah, Moses or any of the other prophets present in the bible. An example that stands out is the intercession of Abraham on behalf of Sodom. Buber suggests that
after the intercession “Abraham has risen in God’s view to the stature of the prophet who mediates between the upper and the lower world as well as between the lower and the upper” (37).
This statement suggests that Abraham was the first prophet to be a mediator in this particular way as a stand in between God and the people. The depiction of Abraham in this particular scene, brings out his characteristic as a seer, as he once again acts in a way that is foreshadowing what those who will come as Prophets after this will also take part in. An example of another prophet who eventually serves as a mediator between God and the people, in great proportions such as Abraham does is Moses. This action of mediating that begins with Abraham and continues with Prophets that come generations after him relates the importance of Abraham as a patriarch and the fact that his actions have once again set an example for future generations to come.
An interesting thing about the way in which Buber writes this article, is how after stating such depictions of Abraham in the bible, that set him apart from other Prophets before him, he uses the way in which the bible represents this character and why it does that in a particular way. The narrative style of the bible in relation to Abraham seem different in comparison to the narrative styles concerning other prophets. An example of this is during his conversation with God in which his name is changed from ‘Abram’ to ‘Abraham. In chapter 17 of The Book of Genesis, ‘Neither shall thy name be Abraham, but thy name shall be Abraham; for the father of a multitude of nations I have made thee.’ This is one of the instances found in the bible that can be used to support Buber’s argument as to why he views Abraham as the chosen one. No other prophet it seems was given the glad tidings of becoming a father to an abundance of nations.
Buber, uses evidence from the bible to support why he refers to Abraham as ‘the seer’ and not just any other prophet or one of the Patriarchs. One of the most outstanding aspects of this article is the author’s use of the seven revelations given to Abraham to support the main argument. Buber states that the seven revelations are steps from the beginning of the mutual relation, between this man, Abraham and God until the relationship is complete (37). In the first revelation the notion of seeing is mentioned and that is in the first three parts of the book of Genesis. Seen here is used in a more general way and in relation to all things visible. But it also foreshadows what will come to happen in Abraham’s future.
In the second revelation, the most striking description of seeing is that in which God lets Abraham see him. According to Buber, Abraham is the first man to see God and he uses the prayer of Moses to God to let him see Him as evidence of the fact. The third revelation seeing is mentioned in relation to the land in which Abraham was promised when he took his covenant with God. This is important because Buber, shows that his description of Abraham as the seer goes beyond the seeing of God by Abraham. By using these revelations, he shows that the seeing of Abraham is a multifaceted one and not a narrow vision.
The fourth revelation, is in relation to seeing the heaven. Unlike the first three revelations, the word ‘seeing’ here is not used explicitly but it is rather implied. Buber argues that it is at this point, the fourth revelation where seeing is raised to become ‘prophetic’ seeing. He says this is where the foreshadowing of the Egyptian exile occurs. The author believes this occurs in the mention of Haran and how God led Abraham out of Ur, to a place where he could openly worship. This will come to happen when God orders Moses to lead the children of Israel from Egypt to Canaan (38,39).
In the fifth revelation, seeing once again occurs in a different way. Buber states that here, God allows himself to be seen by Abraham. In this instance Abraham is given the promise of a great progeny. The sixth revelation begins with seeing in which, three men come to Abraham and he looks up and sees them. This sets the precedence for what Buber suggests is the most statement found within the scripture in which Abraham says to God “shall not the Judge of all earth do justice?” This statement he suggests is in relation of God’s vow to destroy the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The seventh and final revelation is where Abraham completely surrenders himself to God and the path that has been chosen for him. Buber argues that the theme of seeing is the most apparent in this particular passage. It is in this final step that Abraham sees the land where the final act must be carried out. He also sees the ram that God replaces his son with, in the time of the sacrifice. It is also in this passage where the statement “God sees man, and man sees God. God sees Abraham and tests him by seeing him as the righteous and whole man…” (42). It is after this moment that Abraham becomes a Prophet, Buber suggests that Abraham became a seer before he became a prophet. He states that, “Abraham becomes a prophet, but a seer is what he was from the very first moment when God ‘let Himself be seen’…” (43). The success of Abraham’s career is his ability to perfect the seeing that has been attributed to Him and no one else before.
In his article, Martin Buber uses verses in The Book of Genesis, especially from chapters 12-25 to explain his argument of Abraham as a seer. In this article, the author interprets specific biblical texts especially those in relation with the seven revelations that lead to Abraham become a prophet and perfecting the act of seeing. The strengths of this article appear in the author’s ability to interrelate texts and to explain the importance of Abraham in scripture beyond him
being a prophet and just one of the patriarchs. The author also does a good job in supporting his argument and giving examples in why Abraham is a seer and how he foreshadows the realities of nations that would come to exist centuries after he Has. Buber starts out to prove that Abraham is not a myth, but he is indeed a man who existed at some point in history and by using several forms of texts to support his argument, he convinces the reader by the end of the article.
Some weaknesses of the article are perhaps in relation to the way in which Buber presents his argument. In some interpretations of specific biblical texts, the message that is trying to be passed on is lost in translation. However, the conclusion of the article ties all the loose ends together and gives the reader a comprehensive understanding of Buber’s point of view in relation to the role and representation of Abraham