Abraham Searches for the Promised Land
A beautiful story about finding home...
Holy Wr*t! is a collection of original short stories (this one’s quite beautiful, I think), reimagining the world of the Bible. Email subscribers get every new story delivered for free each Tuesday. If you haven’t already, please sign up now!
This post was originally written for my Substack friend Jan, who writes an entirely delightful newsletter called “Finding Home.” Jan explores the many dimensions of the concept of home, and is insightful and erudite to boot. I highly recommend subscribing! Jan asked me for a story, this piece about Abraham is the result.
Abraham said to Sarah: “My darling, perhaps we should move.”
Sarah said to Abraham: “Where? Closer to my mother’s?”
“I was thinking maybe a little farther than that,” said Abraham.
They sat for a while, each in the comfort of the other’s silence. There were stars and a terra cotta skyline out the window, and two pairs of tired old feet poking out of the blanket.
“I was thinking we would just go, and see how far we get,” said Abraham again.
She looked at him then—studied the wrinkles of his skin, his skinny face and deep eye sockets in pools of shadow. An old man with boyish eyes, shining like water at the bottom of a well. She loved him with all her heart.
And so she said: “Like hell we will.”
He picked up her hand in his. “I mean it. Let’s move.”
“It’s a distinct possibility,” said Abraham, absentmindedly patting her hand. He was thinking about the feeling he had felt all his life.
They were in Haran now. They sold the house and the camel import/export business back in Ur, and left behind the wailing, hectoring broods of his blood relatives, who all wished him well against the misfortune they clearly hoped befell him for thinking he could do better. His nephew Lot came along, and also his father Terah. Terah dropped dead the minute they reached Haran, so Abraham figured it was as good a place as any to camp out for a while.
“Shame,” said Abraham, a few years later, as they stacked Terah’s bones into a little ossuary box. “He never made it to the Promised Land.”
“You mean this isn’t the Promised Land?” said Sarah, straightening up and suddenly incensed.
“What’s a Promised Land,” asked Lot.
Abraham paused to think about it. “The Promised Land is a place where the sky is the right color of blue,” he said.
“That doesn’t really make sense,” said Lot.
“The Promised Land,” said Abraham, trying again, “is that sweet sad feeling you get whenever you see something very beautiful. It’s what your heart wants when you feel like that.”
“It must be very big,” said Lot, trying to imagine it.
“Oh yes,” said Abraham, examining a metacarpal, before placing it with the others. “It has to be.”
They never talked about children. They never talked about families.
He remembered that now, thinking back on the lifetime they’d shared together, while they lay on their backs looking up at the stars of Canaan.
She had cried for years—for decades, even, while he held her. Eventually, the tears dried away, and she could laugh again. It would be just the two of them, she decided. And it would be enough. She told him that she loved his great goofy ears that stuck out at right angles from his head, and that she couldn’t decide if he was the lovable klutz who spills the soup, or the unlucky chump it lands on. She said she would love him for a thousand years—that she would love him without a penny to his name.
“Ah,” Abraham had said, spreading his hands sadly, “Bad luck again. As it happens, I am a very rich man.” She laughed and threw a towel at his head.
“What are we doing?” she asked presently, interrupting the drift of his memory. “You’re too old for this. I’m too old for this.”
“We’re numbering stars,” he replied.
He thought about what to say next. He thought about the great oak tree of that place, sacred to the people of Moreh. It was a world tree, a tree of life. He thought about all the things he could not explain, and how sure he felt about them as he passed it earlier this morning.
“We’re numbering the stars of our children,” he said quietly. “Each star is lit for a son or a daughter. A child of Abraham. And Sarah.”
There was silence for a while. Then, words.
“How dare you,” she said. She turned away in the darkness. “How dare you.” She curled her body and cried.
They were building an altar. The three of them—Abraham, Sarah, and Lot—and the tiny entourage that had come with them. “Everyone must place a stone,” said Abraham to the manservant and maidservant. “We build it together.”
“Who are we building it to?” asked Lot, and Abraham told him. It was a name Lot had not heard before.
“To give thanks for the land,” said Abraham.
“The land we don’t have?” asked Lot. “Because I think you actually have to buy the land first before it belongs to you.”
“I disagree,” said Abraham, philosophically. “Belonging to a place isn’t the same as owning it.”
“So this is home then?” said the maidservant, whose name was Hagar.
“Home is in Ur, among the Chaldees,” said the manservant, whose name was Eleazar.
“That’s where we’re from,” said Sarah. “Being from and being home aren’t the same.” She gave him a small smile then, and Abraham felt something change in the air between them. “Home is a place you belong to, and it’s yours, even before you get there.” She paused, then set down a final stone with both hands. “Even if you never get there at all.”
They stood around the altar. Abraham was tired, so he climbed up and sat on top of it, and Sarah sat with him. Sitting there, next to her, he suddenly felt so full of belief—belief in the promise itself—that he felt he had enough faith in his heart to start a whole new religion. Maybe even two or three.
They were in the north country. The rains had come, and the hills were green.
“To whom does the promise belong?” asked Abraham.
“What do you mean?” asked Sarah.
“I’ve been thinking, and I’m not so sure I know,” said Abraham.
She considered it. “I’m not sure I know either,” she said.
“The promise is for a chosen few,” said Abraham. “That was made very clear to me. ‘A chosen few.’” He touched off the words in the air with his hands. “But also a great multitude.” He stretched back his arms. “‘All the families of the earth,’ even.”
Sarah thought about it. It was a strange blessing, and hard to figure. He waited while she pondered it.
“Maybe we are all the chosen few, in some way or other,” she said at last.
He thought about that a while. “Yes,” he said. “I think maybe that’s right.”
They watched the light change and the specter of the wind move across the highland wilds. He wondered what it was that he wanted. He wondered if he had ever seen the Promised Land. He wondered if he had been living there all his life.
“Am I a foolish old man?” he asked his wife.
“Of course you are,” she said, leaning into him and patting his cheek. “We all are. Though not all of us are quite so old.”
“Or so manly,” he said, with a comical grin.
She exhaled through her nose and laughed. He laughed too, then he kissed her.
“This is fine,” said Abraham. “It’s very fine.”
“Yes,” said Sarah. “Yes it is.”
And they walked on a ways together.
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