Benjamin Franklin and the Exodus
Benjamin Franklin and the Exodus

According to Benjamin Franklin’s own attribution, two of his parables were taken “from an ancient Jewish tradition.” One of these is Abraham and the Stranger (sometimes called A Parable against Persecution), a story about the patriarch Abraham, told in King James biblical-language, which expounds the obligation of religious tolerance. (Although Franklin did not mention the second parable by name, Rabbi Max Gruenewald demonstrated in 1947 that this is probably the Parable on Brotherly Love, which draws on rabbinic source materials.)

Franklin (January 17, 1706 — April 17, 1790) composed Abraham and the Stranger no later than 1755, and brought it with him to England. Exceedingly fond of hoaxes, he memorized his parable. When conversation turned to the subject of persecution, he would sometimes request a Bible and then proceed to “read” the story from the Book of Genesis, thus proving the scriptural importance of religious tolerance to his listeners.

Below is the version of the parable offered at Founders Online, a National Archives website providing fully annotated documents from the Founding Fathers Papers projects:

1. And it came to pass after these Things, that Abraham sat in the Door of his Tent, about the going down of the Sun.
2. And behold a Man, bowed with Age, came from the Way of the Wilderness, leaning on a Staff.
3. And Abraham arose and met him, and said unto him, Turn in, I pray thee, and wash thy Feet, and tarry all Night, and thou shalt arise early on the Morrow, and go on thy Way.
4. And the Man said, Nay, for I will abide under this Tree.
5. But Abraham pressed him greatly; so he turned, and they went into the Tent; and Abraham baked unleavend Bread, and they did eat.
6. And when Abraham saw that the Man blessed not God, he said unto him, Wherefore dost thou not worship the most high God, Creator of Heaven and Earth?
7. And the Man answered and said, I do not worship the God thou speakest of; neither do I call upon his Name; for I have made to myself a God, which abideth alway in mine House, and provideth me with all Things.
8. And Abraham’s Zeal was kindled against the Man; and he arose, and fell upon him, and drove him forth with Blows into the Wilderness.
9. And at Midnight God called unto Abraham, saying, Abraham, where is the Stranger?
10. And Abraham answered and said, Lord, he would not worship thee, neither would he call upon thy Name; therefore have I driven him out from before my Face into the Wilderness.
11. And God said, Have I born with him these hundred ninety and eight Years, and nourished him, and cloathed him, notwithstanding his Rebellion against me, and couldst not thou, that art thyself a Sinner, bear with him one Night? 
12. And Abraham said, Let not the Anger of my Lord wax hot against his Servant. Lo, I have sinned; forgive me, I pray Thee:
13. And Abraham arose and went forth into the Wilderness, and sought diligently for the Man, and found him, and returned with him to his Tent; and when he had entreated him kindly, he sent him away on the Morrow with Gifts. 
14. And God spake again unto Abraham, saying, For this thy Sin shall thy Seed be afflicted four Hundred Years in a strange Land:
15. But for thy Repentance will I deliver them; and they shall come forth with Power, and with Gladness of Heart, and with much Substance.

Not only is Abraham and the Stranger not found in Genesis, but the story may not actually be based on “an ancient Jewish tradition.” Its details have no known rabbinic source. Scholars have by now concluded that the story reached Franklin by way of the writings of Jeremy Taylor (1657); Taylor, in turn, likely copied it from George Gentius (1651); Gentius, for his part, attributed it to the “illustrious author Sadus,” the medieval Muslim Persian poet Sa’di (or Saadi); Sa’di (1257) began his version with: “I have heard that once…”; and so the trail ends with Sa’di.

There is no identifiable Jewish foundation for the parable against persecution — though Franklin (like Taylor, who described it as “a story which I find in the Jews’ books”) evidently believed there was one — but rather a Muslim Persian source dealing with Abraham and hospitality.

No Jewish source has yet been found for the key section of the parable in which Abraham learns the lesson of religious tolerance. 
To put it more precisely, Franklin’s parable does have Hebrew-biblical and rabbinic aspects —such as Abraham’s vehement opposition to idolatry -  in rabbinic texts; Abraham’s tremendous concern with hospitality in both biblical and rabbinic sources; and the element of God’s instruction on forbearance to a prophet vexed by human infidelity, such as is found in the Book of Jonah — but no Jewish source has yet been found for the key section of the parable in which Abraham learns the lesson of religious tolerance. 

The late Franklin scholar Leo Lemay averred that Franklin knew that the source of his parable was the poet Sa’di and that this was Franklin’s underlying ironic joke: his Christian audience “generally assumed it was a Christian document” with a good Christian moral, and was unaware that the parable derived from a semi-sacred Muslim text. However, Lemay offered no support for this position and it is not apparent that Franklin was conscious of the parable’s actual origin.

A version of Franklin’s parable eventually entered Jewish literature through an 1844 Hebrew translation by Rabbi Nachman Hacohen Krochmal (which George Alexander Kohut republished in 1902). Krochmal did not attribute his “Moral Parable” to Franklin, and also modified its final two verses, omitting mention of affliction in “a strange Land” (Egypt) as well as the triumphant exodus that would follow. 

Yosef Klausner, in a 1929 Hebrew essay, reasoned that Krochmal modified the parable because he “apparently did not want to mention the Egyptian exile so as not to also mention the exodus from Egypt ‘with Power’ (by means of ‘plagues’), and particularly—‘with much Substance’…” Klausner ended this explanation elliptically, without a suggestion for why Krochmal would have wanted to obscure the violent and plunderous manner in which the Israelites finally obtained their freedom, as described by the Hebrew Bible and Franklin’s parable. Was Klausner implying that the way the Israelites’ oppressors were treated runs counter to the parable’s moral message of tolerance?

Perhaps a simpler explanation for Krochmal’s alteration is that those two verses in Franklin’s parable overtly contradict Jewish beliefs about why the Israelites were enslaved and why they later departed Egypt with great wealth. The verses are unsupported by Jewish tradition and are also not found in Sa’di’s version of the story. Instead, Krochmal’s Hebrew parable concludes with God promising Abraham that due to his devotion, the covenant with his future descendants will be remembered:

“But I will not breach my covenant with them, and will return them to their land; they will be my nation and I will be their God for eternity.”

Shai Afsai lives in Providence, Rhode Island.