The Role of Ecstasy in the Formation of Abraham, the Sage

Philo devotes considerable attention to the biblical patriarch, Abraham, who appears in 19 of his treatises; however, nature and function of the figure of Abraham has not been the focus of scholarly attention in any significant way since the 1956 publication of Samuel Sandmel’s monograph, Philo’s Place in Judaism: A Study of the Conceptions of Abraham in Jewish Literature, and that work largely limited its discussion to the portrait of Abraham found in the biography, De Abrahamo. However, the figure of Abraham plays a central role in the allegorical treatises where Abraham represents the ordinary person who, not being blessed by birth with a perfect nature (as, for example, were the autodidaktoi, Moses and Isaac), must undergo a lengthy purification and training in order to overcome the passions and the influence of empirical thought and come home to God. This purification and training is symbolically represented by Abraham’s journey from Chaldea to Canaan, which Philo describes as the migration of the soul from the material realm to the intellectual or spiritual realm of God. As the allegorical interpretation of scripture stands at the heart of Philo’s thought, I believe a detailed examination of Philo’s allegorical portrait of Abraham and his migration will contribute important, new insights on many critical issues in our understanding of Philo. The role of ecstasy in Philo’s thought is one such issue. In this short paper I seek to demonstrate that the unexceptional person, in Philo’s view, cannot arrive at wisdom except through instruction, and the acquisition of instruction is portrayed in the migration of Abraham. This migration is, in turn, described as a process of self-abandonment, culminating in the abandonment of the subject’s own mind in ecstatic experience which so transforms that mind that it takes on a quality akin to divinity.