Ten-Times-Tested Abraham in the Book of Jubilees

Todd R. Hanneken, Saint Mary’s University

Table of Contents

Jubilees is the earliest source to claim that Abraham was tested not just once, with respect to the command to sacrifice Isaac, but ten times. The idea that God proves and improves the righteous through suffering is already described in Ben Sira. It was a short step to claim that Abraham was persistently and thoroughly tested by God, and that all the hardships in his life were tests of his obedience and patience. The number ten has confounded modern scholars who have attempted to enumerate the ten tests. The difficulty can be reconciled with effort or treated as a contradiction which can be used as evidence for some model of redaction, interpolation, or scribal error. This paper considers those possibilities and also examines literary evidence of testing or some similar discernment process iterating ten times, both in sources received as scripture in Jubilees and in other contemporary sources. The evidence suggests that “ten-times tested” was a rhetorical convention that meant “thoroughly tested” and could be used without expecting the speaker or audience to enumerate a list of ten but not nine or eleven.

Prior to the book of Jubilees, readers of Genesis 22, such as Ben Sira, gathered that God’s test of Abraham in Gen 22:1 was a test of faithfulness. “When tested he was found faithful (πιστός)” (Sir 44:20 NRSV, cf. “loyal” in NAB). See also 1 Macc 2:52, Αβρααμ οὐχὶ ἐν πειρασμῷ εὑρέθη πιστός καὶ ἐλογίσθη αὐτῷ εἰς δικαιοσύνην, “Was not Abraham found faithful in trial, and it was credited to him as righteousness?” Unless otherwise noted translations of canonical literature are taken from NABRE, and translations of Jubilees from James C. VanderKam, Jubilees: A Commentary, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2018). The only significant difference from his 1989 translation is noted below (“voices” vs. “words” in Jub 17:15); ; see idem, The Book of Jubilees, CSCO 511/Scriptores Aethiopici 88 (Louvain: Peeters, 1989). Ben Sira may have been reading Gen 22:1 in light of Gen 15:6 to conclude that the test was one of faithfulness rather than obedience. In Gen 22, obedience (22:18, שמעת בקלי) indicates the virtue of fear of God (22:12, ירא אלהים). In Gen 15:6, belief or putting faith in God (האמן, ἐπίστευσεν) indicates the virtue of righteousness (צדקה). See also Neh 9:8 and Jub 14:6 for the context based on Genesis 15. Jubilees adopts and expands the emphasis on faithfulness as the virtue being tested. Genesis never uses “faithful” as an adjective for Abraham, but Jubilees uses it nine times. James L. Kugel, A Walk through Jubilees: Studies in the Book of Jubilees and the World of its Creation (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 109–10; idem, “Jubilees,” in Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture, ed. L. H. Feldman, J. L. Kugel, and L. H. Schiffman (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2013), 357; idem, Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible As It Was at the Start of the Common Era (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 297–98, 308–9. Jubilees further expands the notion of the testing of Abraham in other ways. First, in addition to faithfulness, we also see another virtue emphasized in Jubilees’ expansion of the tests of Abraham: patience, or the lack of impatience, appears five times in the passage as what it means to pass a test. Second, Jubilees is the first ancient source to attest the expansion of the motif of Abraham the tested beyond the one explicit use of the term in Gen 22. According to Jubilees, Abraham’s life was full of tests, and he passed all of them. In Gen 22, at least as interpreted by Ben Sira and others, the test is a moment of decision in which one chooses either obedience or other fundamental virtues and basic needs. In Jubilees, all suffering and hardship is a test, at least in the case of Abraham. The expansion in Jubilees carries with it a particular understanding of what it means to be tested and what it takes to pass.

Abraham read in light of a theodicy of testing

The notion that God causes the righteous to suffer as a test of patience or faithfulness is a profound theodicy that appears in other circles in the second century BCE. One could identify traces of such a theodicy in earlier writings, such as Psalm 17:3 and 66:10, but overall it would be difficult to call this theodicy common in the widely received scriptures of second-century BCE Judea. Even the virtue of patience (אֹרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, אֶרֶךְ־רוּחַ) is far from a common concern. Most notably, Ben Sira instructs his students, “My child, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for trials” (Sir 2:1). The virtue on trial is patience, even passivity: “Accept whatever happens to you; in periods of humiliation be patient” (Sir 2:4). This is the passage that continues with the disturbing rhetorical questions, “Consider the generations long past and see: has anyone trusted in the Lord and been disappointed? Has anyone persevered in his fear and been forsaken? has anyone called upon him and been ignored?” (Sir 2:10). We cannot say if the author of Jubilees would have gone quite so far, but there is a fundamental compatibility in theodicy when Jubilees maintains that “there is no injustice” (Jub 5:13), at least in the sense that sin is always punished and the righteous are always vindicated within their lifetimes. For more on the theodicy of Jub 5:13 and the claim that no sin goes unpunished, according to Jubilees, see Todd R. Hanneken, The Subversion of the Apocalypses in the Book of Jubilees, SBLEJL 34 (Atlanta: SBL, 2012), 31–38; and idem, “The Watchers in Rewritten Scripture: The Use of the Book of the Watchers in Jubilees,” in The Fallen Angels Traditions: Second Temple Developments and Reception History, ed. A. Harkins, K. Coblentz Bautch, and J. Endres, CBQMS 53 (Washington, DC: CBA of America, 2014), 25–68. The theological compatibility of Ben Sira and Jubilees on this point would have to be weighed with some substantial differences before drawing conclusions about similarity in social location and context. Contemporary sources such as Daniel certainly thought otherwise. See, for example, Dan 11:33–35; 12:1–3. Jubilees expands the motif of Abraham the tested from a single test of obedience to a series of tests of patience, following one of the controversial theodicies of the day.

One striking difference between Ben Sira and Jubilees is the use of scriptural sources. Ben Sira makes a relatively simple reading of Gen 22:1, that God tested the faithfulness of Abraham, and makes negligible claims to establish theodicy in the interpretation of texts. Jubilees, though not explicitly, seems to base the claim—that Abraham was tested many times even before the word is first used in Gen 22:1—in a subtle detail in the verse, “After these things (אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה), God tested Abraham.” That is, after these other tests, God (again) tested Abraham. Kugel, Traditions, 297; A Walk through Jubilees, 109; “Jubilees,” 356–57. If this is the case, it is striking that Jubilees doubly interprets the phrase. Jubilees also, and more clearly, understands “things” as “words,” and presents those words as a heavenly conversation on the extent of Abraham’s faithfulness.

There were words VanderKam’s translation of qālāt in Jub 17:15 changes from “voices” in the 1989 translation to “words” in the 2018 Hermeneia translation, in light of the arguments in Menahem Kister, “Observations on Aspects of Exegesis, Tradition, and Theology in Midrash, Pseudepigrapha, and Other Jewish Writings,” in Tracing the Threads: Studies in the Vitality of Jewish Pseudepigrapha, ed. J. Reeves, SBLEJL 6 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1994), 7–11. in heaven regarding Abraham, that he was faithful in everything that he had told him, (that) the Lord loved him, and (that) in every difficulty he was faithful. Then Prince Mastema came and said before God: “Abraham does indeed love his son Isaac and finds him more pleasing than anyone else. Tell him to offer him as a sacrifice on an altar. Then you will see whether he performs this order and will know whether he is faithful in everything through which you test him.” (Jub 17:15–16)

Most scholars understand this passage to interpret the opening “after these words” of Gen 22:1 as meaning something like “after conversations similar to those described in the book of Job.” J.T.A.G.M. van Ruiten argues otherwise in “Abraham, Job, and the Book of Jubilees: The Intertextual Relationship of Genesis 22:1–19, Job 1:1–2:13 and Jubilees 17:15–18:19,” in The Sacrifice of Isaac: The Aqedah (Genesis 22) and Its Interpretations, ed. E. Noort and E. Tigchelaar, TBN 4 (Leiden: Brill, 2002) 58–85. VanderKam reviews the parallels between the prologue in Job and the sacrifice of Isaac in Jubilees (Jubilees: A Commentary, pp. 563–64, in comments on Jub 17:16). VanderKam also refers to scholars who have seen the influence of Job, starting with Beer’s 1856 monograph, and answers the objections by van Ruiten. See Bernhard Beer, Das Buch der Jubiläen und sein Verhältniss zu den Midraschim (Leipzig: Wolfgang Gerhard, 1856); Devorah Dimant, “The Biblical Basis of Non-Biblical Additions: The Binding of Isaac in Jubilees in Light of the Story of Job,” in Connected Vessels: The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Literature of the Second Temple (Jerusalem: Bialik, 2010), 348–68; J.T.A.G.M. van Ruiten, Abraham in the Book of Jubilees: The Rewriting of Genesis 11:26–25:10 in the Book of Jubilees 11:14–23:8, JSJSup 161, (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 212–14. Thus, “after these words” is doubly interpreted as “after these other tests” and “after these heavenly conversations.” It will be important to remember that Jubilees has a high threshold for redundancy, over-interpreting, giving multiple solutions or justifications for one problem, and general over-kill of any given point. To some modern interpreters this failure to uphold modern standards of logical consistency is evidence of multiple authorship. We will return to the question of contradictions in Jubilees.

The number and the list

The most striking innovation in Jubilees with regard to the testing of Abraham is the concern with numbers. Not only does Jubilees amplify the theme of Abraham the tested, Jubilees assigns the number ten to the tests of Abraham, counting the burial of Sarah as the final test: “This was the tenth test by which Abraham was tried, and he was found to be faithful and patient in spirit” (Jub 19:8). Where did the number ten come from? Perhaps one’s first thought is that it could be derived simply from counting the moments in Abraham’s life that required patience or faithfulness in a moment of decision or tribulation. Upon examination, however, I find that the least likely. Not only does Genesis not lend itself to such an easy enumeration, Jubilees does not either. Scholars who have tried to reconstruct the list of ten tests of Abraham in Jubilees have faced certain frustration. The frustration begins with Jub 17:17, which seems like it should be part of a list:

Now the Lord was aware that Abraham was faithful in every difficulty which he had told him. For he had tested him through his land and the famine; he had tested him through the wealth of kings; he had tested him again through his wife when she was taken forcibly, and through circumcision; and he had tested him through Ishmael and his servant girl Hagar when he sent them away. (Jub 17:17)

Even though the tests are not enumerated, it should be a simple matter to count them up, add the command to sacrifice Isaac and the burial of Sarah, and it should be ten. Alas, it is not so simple.

Scholars have responded to this frustration in a variety of ways. One approach is to reconcile the number and the list by any means necessary. It is indeed possible, but not particularly explicit or elegant. Another approach is to question the text. Perhaps Jubilees 19:3 originally read, “This was the seventh test by which Abraham was tried.” That would fit the list more easily, as well as the attraction to the number seven elsewhere in Jubilees. Another approach is to question the author. Perhaps there was a seven-times-tested Abraham author and another author, editor, or interpolator who came along later and added the claim of ten-times-tested Abraham without reconciling the narrative of the previous author. Yet another approach is to focus attention on the sources used by Jubilees and how they were used. Although Genesis does not enumerate a list of ten tests, what other sources might explain what appears to be pure invention in Jubilees? Finally, one would want to look to later sources that also attest the ten-times-tested Abraham motif. Might their explicit lists and enumerations have been implicit in the older source? By considering each of these approaches to the book of Jubilees, I believe we can gain insight into the rhetoric and composition of Jubilees in its cultural context. I think we can also gain a broader understanding of the rhetoric of ten-times-tested in Judea of twenty-two centuries ago, beyond the Abraham story.

It is possible, though not trivial, to reconstruct a list of ten trials of Abraham. The numbers added to the following passages illustrate the suggestion of James C. VanderKam in 2001: James C. VanderKam, The Book of Jubilees, Guides to Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2001), 54.

For he had tested him through his land [1] and the famine [2]; he had tested him through the wealth of kings [3]; he had tested him again through his wife when she was taken forcibly [4], and through circumcision [5]; and he had tested him through Ishmael [6] and his servant girl Hagar [7] when he sent them away. (Jub 17:17)
Tell him to offer him as a sacrifice on an altar. Then you will see whether he performs this order and will know whether he is faithful in everything through which you test him [8]. (Jub 17:16)
When Abraham went to mourn for her and to bury her [9], we were testing whether he himself was patient and not annoyed in the words that he spoke [10]. But in this respect, too, he was found to be patient and not disturbed… (Jub 19:3)
This was the tenth test by which Abraham was tried, and he was found to be faithful and patient in spirit. (Jub 19:8)

In his commentary on Jubilees for the Hermeneia series, VanderKam counts Ishmael and Hagar as one test (noting the phrase “when he sent them away,” which treats it as a single event). VanderKam, Jubilees: A Commentary, 564 n. 65. In this case the Akedah is the seventh, and it is more difficult to count an eighth and a ninth before the burial of Sarah, which is explicitly the tenth. He suggests that the preparations to sacrifice Isaac and the willingness to sacrifice Isaac could be enumerated seventh and eighth. Then the death of Sarah and negotiations with the Hittites would have been the ninth and tenth tests, respectively. VanderKam, Jubilees: A Commentary, 589. R.H. Charles took Jub 17:7 as seven trials, the Akedah as the eighth, and looked elsewhere in the story of Abraham for the ninth. Robert Henry Charles, The Book of Jubilees or the Little Genesis (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1902), 121. See also Klaus Berger, Das Buch der Jubiläen, JSHRZ 2.3, (Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1981), n. b to v. 17. He resorts to the barrenness of Sarah as the ninth trial and cites Jub 14:21, although the context is distant and the language of testing is absent. All of the above acknowledge the difficulty of reconstructing an enumeration, but assume an enumeration must have existed.

There are some small problems with any of these enumerations and one fundamental issue that leaves them less than satisfying. Six of the tests are compound and might read more easily as three. All of the enumerations read land and famine as different tests, which is possible if one reads the command to travel to Canaan or the separation from Lot apart from the famine that caused Abram to travel to Egypt. VanderKam’s earlier 2001 work and Charles both read sending away Ishmael and Hagar as two tests, one for each person, although VanderKam’s newer 2018 Hermeneia commentary notes that “when he sent them away” sounds like one test. Both enumerations from VanderKam read the death and burial of Sarah as two tests, one for the death itself and one for the acquisition of the cave. Charles places the barrenness of Sarah—the first detail to appear in the Genesis Abraham cycle—near the end of the list. A reader could not have been reasonably expected to provide a detail so far out of sequence, although the chronology was problematic anyway. If one insists on the narrative sequence of Genesis then “the wealth of kings” must refer to Pharaoh, as suggested by VanderKam, though Chedorlaomer would otherwise be the easier identification. Kugel, A Walk through Jubilees, 109; “Jubilees,” 357. None of these speculations are explicit in the text. It may be worthwhile to think of the text in a paratextual context, such as a school setting in which students received instruction beyond the base text and were expected to expand “secret” explanations. Scholars are left doing a lot of work to explain a number based on a sometimes forced series of possibilities. Before spending too much time reconstructing the possible, we should ask why an ancient author would go to such lengths to turn one test into ten. We may be tempted to think of ten as a nice round number, but we must also remember that round numbers are culturally relative. For users of the metric system a multiple of ten may be intuitive and elegant, but the author of Jubilees did not use the metric system. In Pythagorean philosophy ten was a perfect number, but the author of Jubilees was by no means a Pythagorean. In the transmission of Jubilees some scribes seemed to think a jubilee period should be a nice round fifty years (5 × 5 × 2) rather than forty-nine (7²), but the author clearly thought otherwise. Elsewhere in Jubilees ten never appears as a significant number. There is no concept of ten commandments. The ten punishments of the Egyptians are not described as tests. The important question is not whether it is possible to count ten, but why would the author of Jubilees even try to count ten. Why not seven?

The text of Jubilees

One possibility is that the original text of Jub 19:8 did read “seventh” rather than “tenth.” The whole question comes down to one word, and the scribal transmission of Jubilees is complex enough that we should be reluctant to indulge in elaborate reconstructions to satisfy a contradiction of a few letters. There are indeed two arguments, already alluded to, that would support a reconstruction. First, the list of tests more easily adds up to seven than to ten. If famine and land are a single test, Ishmael and Hagar are a single test, and the death and burial of Sarah are a single test, then the list comes to seven. Second, we have other evidence of scribes transmitting the base-seven bias of Jubilees with a base-ten bias, namely in counting a jubilee period as fifty years rather than forty-nine years. Ethiopic Jubilees 19:7 (just one verse before “tenth test”) assumes a jubilee period of 49 years, “All the time of Sarah’s life was 127—that is, two jubilees, four weeks, and one year” (127 = 2 × 49 + 4 × 7 + 1). Latin Jubilees 19:7 assumes a jubilee period of 50 years, “All the time of Sarah’s life was 127 years — that is, two jubilees, four weeks less one year (duos iubeleos septimanas quattuor minus unum annum)” (127 = 2 × 50 + 4 × 7 – 1). The only copy of Latin Jubilees was copied in the same codex by the same scribe as the Testament of Moses. The first legible words of the Testament of Moses date the death of Moses to the year 2500 (50 × 50) of the creation of the world, while Ethiopic Jubilees sets it at 2450 (49 × 50) (Jub 24:10; 50:4). Furthermore, it is not hard to imagine a scribe correcting a text that might seem to underestimate the great hero Abraham. As early as Pirqe ’Abot we have evidence of a ten-times-tested Abraham motif. A scribe who believes that Abraham was tested ten times might have deliberately or subconsciously corrected a text that seemed to sell him short as only seven-times tested.

There is no manuscript support for any such scenario. There is no Hebrew evidence for this verse. Ceriani’s 1861 reading of “decima” (tenth) in the only Latin manuscript was confirmed in 2017 with advanced spectral imaging by the Jubilees Palimpsest Project. The fifth-century Latin manuscript is roughly a millennium older than the earliest Ethiopic copies, and represents an independent textual family. However, the manuscript was erased and rewritten (palimpsested) in the eighth century, and treated in the nineteenth century with chemical reagent intended to improve legibility. Until recently, our knowledge of Latin Jubilees depended on the edition by Ceriani published in 1861, before the reagent damaged the manuscript beyond legibility (Antonio Maria Ceriani, Monumenta Sacra et Profana, vol. 1 [Milan: Bibliotheca Ambrosiana, 1861]). Editors of the time often failed to distinguish letters actually visible from their own expectations (Ceriani was using Dillmann’s translation from the Ethiopic). Spectral imaging performed in 2017 sometimes corrects Ceriani’s assertions, but in this case confirms the reading “decima.” The images are freely available online from the Jubilees Palimpsest Project at http://jubilees.stmarytx.edu. The word “decima,” especially the distinctive “D” is visible in this enhanced image: http://jubilees.stmarytx.edu/iiif/Ambrosiana_C73inf_059_KTK01_00.jp2/804,2033,2275,585/full/0/default.jpg. None of the Ethiopic manuscripts collated by VanderKam read “seventh.” James C. VanderKam, The Book of Jubilees: A Critical Text, CSCO 510/Scriptores Aethiopici 87 (Louvain: Peeters, 1989), 107; idem, Jubilees: A Commentary, 584 n. 8a. The only relevant variation is that Ethiopic manuscript 12 omits “tenth.” This is a very minor piece of evidence in light of the total number of Ethiopic manuscripts and the agreement between the relatively independent Ethiopic and Latin families of textual evidence. However, the lack of manuscript support does not rule out the possibility that a scribal adjustment could have occurred in the first few centuries of transmission.

Even without manuscript support, the case for reconstructing an original text of “seventh test” rather than “tenth test” is fairly strong for the field of text criticism. I must admit it as a possibility, even though I do not find it necessary, as I argue below. The question remains unanswered, why ten? Whether it was the original author of Jubilees or a scribal innovation sometime thereafter, why would someone claim that Abraham passed ten tests? How or why did the motif of ten-times-tested Abraham develop, whether in the second century BCE or shortly thereafter? I believe there is a better explanation than ten seeming like a rounder number than seven, or a simple reading of the Abraham stories, or a hagiographic instinct inflating Abraham’s seven accomplishments to ten.

The author(s) of Jubilees

The same perception of contradiction also leads to source-critical arguments that the book of Jubilees cannot be the work of a single author. These arguments are of two kinds. The first kind, most recently exemplified by Michael Segal, attempts to reconstruct a process of redaction from multiple coherent sources. Michael Segal, The Book of Jubilees: Rewritten Bible, Redaction, Ideology and Theology, JSJSup 117 (Leiden: Brill, 2007). Segal does not use the example of seven or ten tests of Abraham among his list of contradictions, and it does not particularly fit his distinction between narrative sources and legal-chronological redaction. Still, his basic model could apply in this case. We could explain the contradiction as the result of a redactor making use of a seven-times-tested Abraham source and a ten-times-tested Abraham source. The compiler did not bother to count or correct the list from the seven-times-tested source when adding the assertion from the ten-times-tested source, leaving us with a contradiction. Or alternatively, the compiler made a minimal attempt to add conjunctions such that the enumeration described above would be possible, if not elegant. Although I am not persuaded by the bolder formulation of Segal’s thesis, he has certainly done a great service in emphasizing ways in which the author of Jubilees uses many sources, far beyond Genesis and Exodus. What Segal calls contradictions I prefer to call seams in the compositional process, and what he calls redaction I would call authorship, or perhaps synthetic authorship but noting that authorship in antiquity generally is synthetic. For more discussion of conceptions of authorship in antiquity see Hanneken, “The Watchers in Rewritten Scripture.” As for the case at hand, it is certainly possible to imagine a compositional seam between different interpretive traditions explaining the tension between a list that presumes a seven-times-tested Abraham and the claim of a ten-times-tested Abraham. Such a scenario is not implausible. The perceived contradiction, combined with the cumulative weight of similar instances, can be taken as evidence of a somewhat sloppy process of combining sources. The problem in this case is that, apart from what seems like a natural counting of tests in Jubilees, there is no evidence of a seven-times-tested tradition. Further consideration below indicates there never was one. Rather, the many-times-tested tradition started with ten from the very beginning.

The second category of source-critical argument recently applied to Jubilees is exemplified by Kugel’s reconstruction of an author-interpolator model for the formation of the book of Jubilees as we have it. Kugel does use the example of the number of tests of Abraham in his list of contradictions and suggests that the interpolator added the ten-times-tested Abraham assertion to a base narrative that did not know or logically support the claim. James L. Kugel, “On the Interpolations in the Book of Jubilees,” RevQ 94 (2009): 215–72, here 263–64. Jubilees 19:8 does not fit the general characterization of the interpolator as a radical predestinarian who is obsessed with a distinctive vocabulary pertaining to heavenly tablets. Kugel, “On the Interpolations,” 267. If one accepts the focus on “patience” as distinctive, then Jub 19:8 is tied to the surrounding narrative, although Kugel concedes that in most matters of theology and vocabulary the interpolator was a devout follower of the original author. Kugel claims that his reconstructed original book of Jubilees reads smoothly, and indeed more smoothly, if the work of the interpolator is excised. Kugel, “On the Interpolations,” 266. Kugel does not specify how much should be excised in this case. If we excise the entire claim that Abraham continued to be tested after the command to sacrifice Isaac then we are left with a much shorter story that does not deal with the death of Sarah, the purchase of the burial cave, and furthermore does not round out the theme of many tests of Abraham. If we excise only the detail of the number ten, then there is no resolution to the many-times-tested theme. If the interpolator did not add but merely replaced “seventh” with “tenth,” we are back to the possibility described above that a scribe adjusted a base-seven bias with a base-ten bias, or an understated hagiography with an inflated hagiography. In both approaches, the approach of Segal and the approach of Kugel, we can appreciate that many complex situations are plausible in the life of a text, but it is another matter to reconstruct the details with any confidence. Segal is certainly correct to observe that Jubilees draws from many sources, but I do not think he has recovered the precise mechanism of composition. Kugel is almost certainly correct that the scribal transmission of Jubilees includes some accretion, but I do not think he has successfully recovered the personality and theology of the so-called Interpolator. The contradiction perceived here can be explained with many possible models but does not prove any of them.

I do not argue that Jubilees has no logical leaps or mismatches, or that Jubilees bears no marks of the tension of drawing from many sources within and beyond the Masoretic canon, or that any of the manuscripts reflect the pristine written word of one original author. I do maintain that the motif of ten-times-tested Abraham in the book of Jubilees, and the difficulty of enumerating the ten, do not prove or require any elaborate model of composition. Furthermore, none of the models of composition explain the ten-times-tested Abraham motif. I am less concerned with when the motif of ten-times-tested Abraham originated and more concerned with how. Whether one wants to think of the motif as an oral or written tradition from which the author drew, the author’s own innovation, or an innovation in scribal transmission, the book of Jubilees is the oldest text to reflect the motif. Why would anyone think that Abraham was tested ten times?

The sources and cultural context from which Jubilees draws

Any thorough attempt to explain a motif or problem in the book of Jubilees needs to consider the sources likely available in some form at the time. This easily includes most or all of the Masoretic canon and additional sources known to us from the Dead Sea Scrolls and Cairo Geniza, as well as ancient Jewish literature preserved by Christians (mainly Philo, Josephus, and the so-called Pseudepigrapha). The rabbinic sources, starting with Pirqe ’Abot, I classify as later sources and discuss below, although I will not rule out the possibility that they attest previously undocumented motifs and cultural presuppositions. VanderKam discusses the sources reflected in Jubilees (Jubilees: A Commentary, 84–98). See also his “Jubilees as Prophetic History,” in The Prophetic Voice at Qumran: The Leonardo Museum Conference on the Dead Sea Scrolls, 11–12 April 2014, ed. D. W. Parry, S. D. Ricks, and A. C. Skinner, STDJ 120 (Leiden: Brill, 2017), 167–88. I will conclude that Jubilees does not interpret any one source to arrive at the motif of ten-times-tested Abraham. Rather, I argue that many sources point to a ten-times-tested rhetorical formula. The formula existed in the cultural context of the composition of Jubilees. Jubilees applied the formula to Abraham based on the claim in Gen 22:1 that God tested Abraham. Furthermore, there is no evidence that a seven-times-tested rhetorical formula ever existed. There never was a seven-times-tested Abraham source, either before the composition of Jubilees or at any stage in its scribal transmission. The only contradiction is between a rhetorical formula that was not meant to be precisely analyzed, and the modern scholarly obsession with logical consistency. The attempt to enumerate the ten does predate modern logic, but not by as much as one might think. As explored in the final section, the earliest rabbinic sources continue the rhetorical formula without enumeration, or with a list that does not add up to ten.

Before proceeding with the evidence, the term “rhetorical formula” requires some explanation. I am open to alternative vocabulary, but I do reject “symbolic number” as a good description of what I am claiming. There is no symbol to decode or a larger reality being suggested. I have also considered and rejected “number aesthetics” as too much implying an elaborate system behind the phrase. It is also more than just a matter of a round number. Ten is not in fact a round number across the board, other than the plagues in Egypt. Even the Decalogue, I would suggest, is best understood with the help of the concept of a rhetorical formula. A precise enumeration of ten commandments is not so clear in Exodus or Deuteronomy that different religious traditions have not offered different enumerations. And yet the phrase עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדְּבָרִים “ten words” appears in Ex 34:28 and Deut 4:13 and 10:4. It appears that the idea of a block of ten-ish things existed long before a precise enumeration. Other candidates for phrases that express approximations rather than precise enumerations may include “forty days and forty nights.” A lively discussion among conference participants offered several additional possible examples of numbers being used according to cultural conventions with little or no attention among authors and transmitters to precise enumeration. The Letter of Aristeas asserts seventy-two translators, but lists seventy-one names (until corrected by Epiphanius). Josephus speaks of seventy translators as six times twelve. Matthew’s genealogy does not add up unless the Babylonian Exile is counted as a generation. Such expressions, or rhetorical formulas, were not originally meant to be taken literally or counted out precisely. By calling “ten-times-tested” a rhetorical formula, I mean that people in the context of the composition of Jubilees understood the phrase to mean “thoroughly tested beyond a reasonable doubt.” They would not have expected a precise enumeration, and they would not have altered the formula if the list came to nine or eleven.

The evidence that ten-times-tested was a rhetorical formula independent of application to Abraham comes from a variety of sources, both in sources received as scripture by the author of Jubilees, and in other more-or-less contemporary sources. Before the Mishnah, Jubilees is the only source to apply the rhetoric to Abraham, but “ten-times-tested” recurs in diverse contexts. No one of the sources is so direct or salient as to imply that Jubilees was interpreting that source. Rather, it seems Jubilees reflects a culture in which “ten-times-tested” means “thoroughly tested.”

Numbers 14:22 provides the most direct parallel. There, the Israelites who disobeyed God despite having seen the miracles in Egypt are forbidden from seeing the promised land. Their disobedience is expressed as וַיְנַסּוּ אֹתִי זֶה עֶשֶׂר פְּעָמִים וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ בְּקוֹלִי “they have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice” (Num 14:22 NRSV). No precise list of ten tests is offered in Numbers. We may observe the additional parallel that testing is associated with obedience in the immediate context and perhaps even patience in the general context. If Numbers were the only parallel, we might imagine that Jubilees followed a logic of symmetry, such as ten merits of Abraham for ten sins of Israel, as attested in much later literature. It is the proliferation of less direct parallels discussed next that strengthens the case for a rhetorical formula in cultural context rather than a narrow exegesis.

The motif of ten-times-tested may also be reflected in (or fueled by) the assertion in Deuteronomy that the plagues in Egypt were tests (הַמַּסֹּת, Deut 7:19 and 29:2). This is an interesting case in that the word “ten” does not appear in context. The compositional history of the Pentateuch falls outside the scope of this study. For the author of Jubilees, Exodus and Deuteronomy belonged to a coherent composition. Consequently, if Exodus spoke of ten plagues through which God afflicted the Egyptians and Deuteronomy spoke of great tests through which God afflicted the Egyptians then the ten plagues were ten great tests. The idea of ten-times-tested existed without the phrase. There is no reason that the author of Jubilees would deliberately compare Abraham to Pharaoh. Rather we are seeing an adaptable convention with porous boundaries. In the cultural context of Jubilees, thorough tests were ten-fold.

Another instance of the cluster appears in the book of Job without the word “test” exactly. Job protests of God, “ten times you have humiliated me” עֶשֶׂר פְּעָמִים תַּכְלִימוּנִי (Job 19:3). The parallels are intriguing. If one follows the logic of Ben Sira (Sir 2:4–5), humiliation is a test from God. The prologue of Job further implies that Job’s suffering was a test, and the same basic scenario is adopted in Jubilees to explain how God tested Abraham in response to the derisive skepticism of a heavenly accuser. See Jub 17:15–16 and the footnote above for the arguments, despite van Ruiten’s dissent, that Jubilees borrows from Job. Despite evidence that the author of Jubilees was aware of the book of Job, the parallels do not amount to evidence that Jubilees is interpreting or borrowing “ten times” directly from the book of Job. Even if the author of Jubilees understood Job and Abraham as similarly righteous persons passing tests from God initiated by heavenly accusers, the emphasis in Jubilees is on patience, along with faithfulness. The King James translation of James 5:11 as “the patience of Job” is famously difficult to reconcile with the book of Job itself, in which Job appears anything but patient. Roland E. Murphy, The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature (3rd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 33. However, the description of Job as patient rather than persistent (ὑπομονὴν) is more a matter of English translation than an ancient interpretation. The parallel of a righteous person tested by God comes from general context. The immediate context is a harsh speech from Job. The author of Jubilees would not attribute such a response to Abraham by association. The parallel derives from a common cultural rhetoric rather than a deliberate interpretive association.

Other parallels in received older writings (it is not here claimed that Jubilees considered Nehemiah scripture) have less association with testing in a narrow sense, but reflect a comparable association of “ten times” as critical mass for undeniable certitude. Nehemiah takes action to defend Jerusalem based not on a rumor or a single claim, but on ten reports וַיֹּאמְרוּ לָנוּ עֶשֶׂר פְּעָמִים (Neh 4:6). Jacob uses a similar phrase עֲשֶׂרֶת מֹנִים “ten times” to accuse Laban of persistent malfeasance with wages (Gen 31:7, 41). The general context might provide some sense of trial or difficulties for Jacob to endure, but the immediate context has more of a legal tone of establishing Laban’s ill intent beyond a reasonable doubt. In both cases, there is no list of ten, nor would the point falter if the number were actually nine or eleven. Ten-times is a degree of certainty and reliability, not an enumeration. The diversity of ten-times meaning thoroughly established and certain (Israelite disobedience of God, Job’s humiliation, Nehemiah’s risk assessment, Laban’s pattern of exploitation) is matched by its exclusivity. These are the only occasions in the received older writings when the phrase “ten times” עֶשֶׂר פְּעָמִים or עֲשֶׂרֶת מֹנִים appears. Many things happen seven times, especially liturgically in the priestly source, or twice or thrice, but the semantic range does not overlap. Psalm 12:6/7 is worth mentioning. There “seven times refined” expresses a degree of purity, “The promises of the LORD are promises that are pure, silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times ( מְזֻקָּק שִׁבְעָתָיִם)” (NRSV). The psalm itself uses the image of smelted metal, pure in the sense of lacking slag and impurities that impair structural integrity, to express reliability. Other sources, such as Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon, adopt the image of the crucible in the context of theodicy, to explain the purpose of human suffering as improving or proving the virtue of the sufferer. See for example Ben Sira 2:5, “For gold is tested in the fire, and those found acceptable, in the furnace of humiliation” (NRSV; see also Wis 3:6). Proverbs 17:3 and 27:21 use the metaphor for human testing in the sense of assessment but not suffering. To the best of my knowledge, no interpreter, Jubilees or otherwise, that applied the metaphor of metal smelting to human testing and suffering also applied the “sevenfold” detail from Psalm 12. Seven-times never means established beyond a reasonable doubt, and established beyond a reasonable doubt is not expressed as any other number of times.

The distinctive clustering of rhetoric of ten-times around testing or other establishments of certainty extends to other sources which reflect the same cultural context as Jubilees, around the same time or later. The Testament of Joseph asserts that Joseph was tested with ten temptations (2:7). Again, no list is given. A reader of Genesis could be expected to agree that Joseph endured trials and temptations on several occasions, but would not be expected to fill out a precise list. The Hebrew introduction to the Daniel court tales has another ten-fold test, although it is one test for ten days, “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink” (Dan 1:12, cf. 1:14). I classify the first chapter of Daniel as contemporary to Jubilees rather than received scripture, but the issue does not affect the argument at hand that both received and contemporary traditions treat “ten-times-tested” as a rhetorical formula for certainty. In the same chapter, the number ten appears to express the certainty with which a trial of sorts is resolved, “In every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which the king inquired of them, he found them ten times (עֶשֶׂר יָדוֹת) better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom” (Dan 1:20 NRSV). Another ten-day test may rely on direct interpretation of Daniel rather than cultural context, “Indeed, the devil will throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will face an ordeal for ten days” (Rev 2:10).

With the exception of the Apocalypse of John depending directly on Daniel, the cumulative evidence suggests that ten-times-tested was a widespread cultural category that was not anchored to interpretation of or allusion to a particular scripture. Ten-times-tested meant thoroughly tested, and thoroughly tested was expressed with the number ten (but not an explicit list). In this convention “testing” was a broad category that could encompass suffering and assessments. Testing is never expressed with any other number, such as seven-times-tested or nine-times tested. It seems logical to conclude that there never was a seven-times-tested Abraham source either used by Jubilees or as a stage of composition of Jubilees. Furthermore, with the possible exception of the ten plagues as ten tests implicit in reading Deuteronomy and Exodus together, the idea of ten-fold-tested never accompanies a specific list or enumeration. It seems logical to conclude that “ten” in this context meant thoroughly and more than a few, but was not meant to specify a precise number much different from nine or eleven. Jubilees is the first source known to us to apply the ten-times-tested convention to Abraham, but the convention already existed.

Later sources which may reflect the same motif

The ten-times-tested Abraham motif appears again in rabbinic literature, particularly in Pirqe ’Abot and interpretations thereof. The argument thus far that ten-times-tested was a widespread cultural convention or rhetorical formula also stands to establish that an independent interpreter could have concluded that Abraham was tested ten times. The parallel between Jubilees and the Mishnah in the motif of ten-times-tested Abraham does not indicate direct or indirect dependence. A different question is whether the content of the ten tests shows overlap beyond common interpretation of a form of Genesis. There are negligible commonalities in lists of tests, even within the rabbinic sources. Furthermore, the rabbinic sources confirm that ten-times-tested could be used with no more precision than “tested thoroughly beyond a reasonable doubt.” There was a standard claim of ten-times-tested Abraham, but there was no standard list of ten. Mishnah ’Abot asserts ten with no list whatsoever. ’Abot de Rabbi Nathan B asserts ten and lists nine. ’Abot de Rabbi Nathan A and Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer enumerate ten tests, but do not agree with each other or with Jubilees. The nearest consistency in the rabbinic sources is to count the binding of Isaac as the tenth test, but Jubilees counts the burial of Sarah as the tenth test. In addition to the sources discussed here, Genesis Rabbah 56:11, and Targum Neofiti and the Fragment Targum on Gen 22:1 assert that Genesis 22 was the tenth test. See further VanderKam, Jubilees: A Commentary, 564–65 n. 66, and Beer, Jubiläen, 35. It is not plausible that Jubilees assumes the same enumeration as any of the rabbinic sources.

Mishnah ’Abot 5:3 includes the ten-times-tested Abraham motif in a collection of tens of things, but offers no list or suggestion of what the ten were.

עֲשָׂרָה נִסְיוֹנוֹת נִתְנַסָּה אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ עָלָיו הַשָּׁלוֹם וְעָמַד בְּכֻלָּם לְהוֹדִיעַ כַּמָּה חִבָּתוֹ שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ עָלָיו הַשָּׁלוֹם
Ten tests: Abraham our father (peace be upon him) was tested—and he withstood all of them—in order to make known how great is the love of Abraham our father. (m. ’Abot 5:3)

Not only is there no list of tests, there is no allusion to any test other than Gen 22. Even in this brief mention we can find an allusion to the interpretive motif of Gen 22 explaining why God, particularly an omniscient God, would subject Abraham to such a test. It was not so that God would come to know the result, as suggested by the Masoretic text of Gen 22:12, but so that God would make known to others, either angels or subsequent generations. See further Kugel, Traditions, 302–3; Jacob S. Licht, Testing in the Hebrew Scriptures and in Judaism of the Second Temple Period (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1973), 51–53. On the general pattern in Jubilees of maintaining divine omniscience see Segal, Jubilees, 190–91. Although Jubilees is the first source to witness this interpretation, it is widespread enough that direct influence could not be claimed for Jubilees. The detail that the thing being made known was Abraham’s love may address the epithet of Isaac as the one Abraham loved in Gen 22:2. The implication may be that willingness to kill a loved one for God indicates a high degree of love for God. The composer of the tradition seems to have thought the motif of Abraham the thoroughly tested had more to do with the extremity of the command to sacrifice Isaac than the enumeration of nine others. The expression does not require a precise list.

’Abot de Rabbi Nathan exists in two versions. In the version labeled “B” there is an enumeration but it adds up to only nine.

WITH TEN TRIALS WAS ABRAHAM OUR FATHER TRIED AND HE WITHSTOOD THEM ALL—TO MAKE KNOWN THE GREATNESS OF ABRAHAM OUR FATHER. And they are: In Ur of the Chaldees: “Go forth from your country and your kindred… (Gen 11:31 and 12:1);” In leaving Haran (Gen 12:4); “Now there was a famine in the land. … (Gen 12:10);” Two in connection with Sarah: one with Pharaoh and one with Abimelech (Gen. 12:11ff; Gen 20); One in connection with circumcision (Gen 17:9); One in connection with the covenant between the halves (Gen 15); One in connection with Isaac (Gen 22); One in connection with Ishmael (Gen 21:8). (’Abot de Rabbi Nathan B 36, Saldarini) Anthony J. Saldarini, The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan (Abot de Rabbi Nathan) Version B: A Translation and Commentary, SJLA 11 (Leiden: Brill, 1975).

Saldarini notes the problem with the enumeration and offers the explanation, “Only nine trials are here. The lists of ten differ in the sources and this one probably got confused.” Saldarini, Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, note to ’Abot R. Nat. B 36. It is certainly true that the lists differ, when they appear at all. Another matter is whether there was a list to be confused. There may not have been a common list, just a vague sense that testing is a theme running through the Abraham stories and climaxing with the willingness to sacrifice Isaac. It is possible to blame the scribes who transmitted the tradition, but it is also possible to count the scribes as evidence that the expression of the theme of ten-times-tested Abraham could be understood perfectly well without being analyzed or fixed with a precise, let alone standard, enumeration.

Version A of ’Abot de Rabbi Nathan does list tests that add up to ten. Even when the numbers add up to ten, the diversity among the lists implies that there was no standard list memorized by generations of rabbis. The overlap that does exist is explicable from the common source of Genesis, but note that in Jubilees and here the list of tests does not follow the sequence of Genesis.

WITH TEN TRIALS WAS ABRAHAM OUR FATHER TRIED BEFORE THE HOLY ONE, BLESSED BE HE, AND IN ALL OF THEM HE WAS FOUND STEADFAST, to wit: Twice, when ordered to move on; Twice, in connection with his two sons; Twice, in connection with his two wives; Once, on the occasion of his war with the kings; Once, at the (covenant) between the pieces; Once, in Ur [Neusner: the furnace] of the Chaldees; And once, at the covenant of circumcision. (’Abot de Rabbi Nathan A 33, Goldin) Judah Goldin, The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955).

We can also identify in this list traditions not known to the author of Jubilees, namely the pun on Gen 15:7, “I have brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans,” as “I have brought you out of the fire/furnace of the Chaldeans.” Kugel, Traditions, 252–54. Goldin points out the allusion with a footnote, while Neusner simply translates as “the furnace of the Chaldeans.” Jacob Neusner, The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan: An Analytical Translation and Explanation, BJS 114 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1986). The lengthy discussion in Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer is even more creative and less likely to reflect a standard tradition as old as Jubilees. In particular, Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer claims that the first test was that Abraham was hidden underground the first thirteen years of his life. Even when interpreters chose to elaborate on the theme of ten-times-tested Abraham with mathematical precision, we are witnessing a creative weaving of complex traditions, not witnesses of a list as standard as the overarching claim of ten tests.


In conclusion, we can summarize the received traditions, innovations, and influence of Jubilees. Prior to the composition of Jubilees we find evidence of a theology of suffering that interprets suffering as a test from God, not only of obedience, but of faithfulness and patience. We also have evidence that passing the test in Gen 22 was understood as Abraham’s crowning achievement. We also have evidence that thorough testing or examination could be expressed as ten-times-testing, and further that the figure of speech was not expected to be enumerated precisely. Given these ingredients taken from the cultural context, it is not particularly surprising that Jubilees would combine them as it did. In this case, I would not claim a particularly clever exegetical innovation, but of course I would not want to generalize that Jubilees does not at other times make clever exegetical innovations. Similarly, the fact that later sources also attest a ten-times-tested Abraham motif does not require a chain of reception and influence of Jubilees, but of course I would not want to generalize that Jubilees does not at other times have an intriguing history of reception and influence. One point that I would like to claim has broader application is that the modern scholarly obsession with contradictions and logical, especially mathematical, consistency distracts us from understanding the rhetoric, theology, and use of sources in Jubilees. I would emphasize that authorship in antiquity valued synthesis more than originality, and that innovation in scribal transmission was more organic than systematic. If we are to use the word “contradictions” for the seams and tensions demonstrable in Jubilees, we should think of them not as failures and corruptions, but as the multi-valence that grows out of weaving something new from diverse received authorities. Jewish and Christian thinkers across the centuries differ with regard to which contradictions in scripture and tradition bother us, which we embrace as mystery, and which we never notice. The seams left by ancient authors for us to study are the seams they cared least to fix. The author of Jubilees was more concerned with the problem that Abraham seems to have been tested only once in Genesis. Significant as that test may have been, Jubilees sought to reconcile the emphasis on Abraham-the-tested with the broader understanding that the righteous face many tests, as well as the conventional rhetoric of ten-times-tested. The motif of ten-times-tested Abraham in Jubilees points not to corruption and contradiction, but to innovation in the theological construction of the righteousness of a founding ancestor.