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Abraham (Abraham "Father/Leader of many", Standard Hebrew Avraham,
Tiberian Hebrew Abraham; Arabic Ibrahim) is the patriarch of Judaism,
Islam, and Christianity. His story is told in the Book of Genesis.
Islam also regards him as the ancestor of the Bedouins, through
Ishmael. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are sometimes referred
to as the "Abrahamic religions" in reference to their supposed
common descent from Abraham.
There is no known account of his life independent of Genesis,
so it is not possible to know if he was a historical figure. If
he was, he probably lived between 2000 BC and 1500 BC.
His original name was Abram "High/Exalted father/leader", Standard
Hebrew Avram, ); he was the foremost of the Biblical patriarchs.
Later in life he went by the name Abraham. (See Genesis 17).
Abraham in Genesis
The account of his life is found in the Book of Genesis, beginning
in Chapter 11, at the close of a genealogy of the sons of Shem
(which includes among its members Eber, the eponym of the Hebrews).
His father Terah came from Ur of the Chaldees, identified by
most historians with the ancient city in southern Mesopotamia
which was under the rule of the Chaldeans — although some believe
that "Ur" should be identified with Urfa (or Ur-Of-The-Khaldis)
in northern Mesopotamia, in keeping with the local tradition that
Abraham was born in Urfa; or with the nearby Urkesh, which others
identify with "Ur of the Chaldees". They also say "Chaldees" refers
to a group of gods called Khaldis while the Urartian language
is also known as Chaldaean thanks to Josephus. Abram migrated
to Haran, apparently the classical Carrhae, on a branch of the
Habor. Thence, after a short stay, he, his wife Sarai, Lot (the
son of Abram's brother Haran), and all their followers, departed
for Canaan. There are two possible Ur cities not far from Haran;
Ura and Urfa, a northern Ur also being mentioned in tablets at
Ugarit, Nuzi, and Ebla. These possibly refer to Ur, URA, and Urau
(See BAR January 2000, page 16). Moreover, the names of Abram's
forefathers Peleg, Serug, Nahor and Terah, all appear as names
of cities in the region of Haran (Harper's Bible Dictionary, page
373). Yahweh called Abram to go to "the land I will show you",
and promised to bless him and make him (though hitherto childless)
a great nation. Trusting this promise, Abram journeyed down to
Shechem, and at the sacred tree (compare Gen. 25:4, Joshua 24:26,
Judges 9:6) received a new promise that the land would be given
unto his seed (descendants). Having built an altar to commemorate
the theophany, he removed to a spot between Bethel and Ai, where
he built another altar and called upon (i.e. invoked) the name
of Yahweh (Gen. 12:1-9).
Here he dwelt for some time, until strife arose between his herdsmen
and those of Lot. Abram thereupon proposed to Lot that they should
separate, and allowed his nephew the first choice. Lot preferred
the fertile land lying east of the Jordan River, whilst Abram,
after receiving another promise from Yahweh, moved down to the
oaks of Mamre in Hebron and built an altar.
In the subsequent history of Lot and the destruction of Sodom
and Gomorrah, Abram appears prominently in a passage where he
intercedes with Yahweh on behalf of Sodom, and is promised that
if ten righteous men can be found therein the city shall be preserved
Driven by a famine to take refuge in Egypt (26:11, 41:57, 42:1),
Abram feared lest his wife's beauty should arouse the evil designs
of the Egyptians and thus endanger his own safety, and alleged
that Sarai was his sister. This did not save her from the Pharaoh,
who took her into the royal harem and enriched Abram with herds
and servants. But when Yahweh "plagued Pharaoh and his house with
great plagues" suspicion was aroused, and the Pharaoh rebuked
the patriarch for his deceit and sent him away under an escort
There is a parallel text describing a similar event at Gerar
with the Philistine king Abimelech.
As Sarai was infertile, God's promise that Abraham's seed would
inherit the land seemed incapable of fulfilment. His sole heir
was his servant, who was over his household, a certain Eliezer
of Damascus (15:2). Abraham is now promised as heir one of his
own flesh. The passage recording the ratification of the promise
is remarkably solemn (see Genesis 15).
Sarai, in accordance with custom, gave to Abram her Egyptian
handmaid Hagar, who, when she found she was with child, presumed
upon her position to the extent that Sarai, unable to endure the
reproach of barrenness (cf. the story of Hannah, 1 Samuel 1:6),
dealt harshly with her and forced her to flee (16:1-14). Hagar
is promised that her descendants will be too numerous to count,
and she returns. Her son Ishmael thus was Abram's firstborn (and
Islamic doctrine holds that he was the rightful heir). Hagar and
Ishmael were eventually driven permanently away from Abram by
Sarah (chapter 21).
The name Abraham was given to Abram (and the name Sarah to Sarai)
at the same time as the covenant of circumcision (chapter 17),
which is practiced in Judaism to this day. At this time Abraham
was promised not only many descendants, but descendants through
Sarah specifically, as well as the land where he was living, which
was to belong to his descendants. The covenant was to be fulfilled
through Isaac, though God promised that Ishmael would become a
great nation as well. The covenant of circumcision (unlike the
earlier promise) was two-sided and conditional: if Abraham and
his descendants fulfilled their part of the covenant, Yahweh would
be their God and give them the land.
The promise of a son to Sarah made Abraham "laugh," which became
the name of the son of promise, Isaac. Sarah herself "laughs"
at the idea, when Yahweh appears to Abraham at Mamre (18:1-15)
and, when the child is born, cries "God hath made me laugh; every
one that heareth will laugh at me" (21:6).
In Genesis 18, Abraham pleads with God not to destroy Sodom,
and God agrees that he would not destroy the city if there were
50 righteous people in it, or 45, or 30, 20, even 10 righteous
people. (Abraham's nephew Lot had been living in Sodom.)
Some time after the birth of Isaac, Abraham was commanded by
God to offer his son up as a sacrifice in the land of Moriah.
Proceeding to obey, he was prevented by an angel as he was about
to sacrifice his son, and slew a ram which he found on the spot.
As a reward for his obedience he received another promise of a
numerous seed and abundant prosperity (22). Thence he returned
to Beersheba. The near sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most challenging,
and perhaps ethically troublesome, parts of the Bible.
The primary interest of the narrative now turns to Isaac. To
his "only son" (22:2, 12) Abraham gave all he had, and dismissed
the sons of his concubines to the lands outside Palestine; they
were thus regarded as less intimately related to Isaac and his
descendants (25:1-6). See also: Midianites, Sheba.
Sarah died at an old age, and was buried in the cave of Machpelah
near Hebron, which Abraham had purchased, along with the adjoining
field, from Ephron the Hittite (Genesis 23). Here Abraham himself
was buried. Centuries later the tomb became a place of pilgrimage
and the traditional site was later marked by an Islamic mosque.
Abraham in Judaism
Abraham is considered the father of the Jewish nation, as their
first Patriarch, and having a son (Isaac), who in turn gave birth
to Jacob, and from there the Twelve Tribes. To father the nation,
God "tested" Abraham with ten tests, the greatest of which being
the sacrifice of his son Isaac. God promised the land of Israel
to his children, and that is the first claim of the Jews to Israel.
Judaism ascribes a special trait to each Patriarch. Abraham's
was kindness. Because of this, Judaism considers kindness to be
an inherent Jewish trait.
Jewish tradition teaches the origins of Abraham's monotheism.
His father Terah owned a store that sold idols. Abraham (then
Abram), at the age of three, started to question their authenticity.
This culminating in Abraham destroying some idols.
Abraham was then brought to the king, and sentenced to death,
along with his brother Haran, unless they recanted their position.
Abraham did not, and was thrown into a fire. When Abraham exited
unscathed, Haran also would not recant, and was thrown into the
fire. Haran, who did not truly believe, died in the fire. This
is hinted to in Genesis 11:28.
Abraham then went to Haran (the city, different name than his
brother) with his father and brother. His father died there. God
spoke to Abraham for the first time, and told him of great things
He would give him if he would leave Haran. Abraham did. He was
seventy-five during this affair.
Abraham started a school for teaching his beliefs in God, and
some say he wrote the Sefer Yetzirah.
Jews today mention Abraham in their prayers, when praying to
"the God of Abraham". And, because of Genesis 15:1, ask that God
shield them, like he promised to shield Abraham. Also, the epitome
of his tests, the binding of Isaac on the altar, is mentioned
many times in the Jewish liturgy.
Abraham in Christianity
Abraham stands out prominently as the recipient of the promises
(Gen. 12:2-7, 13:14-17, 15, 17, 18:17-19, 22:17-18, 24:7). In
the New Testament Abraham is mentioned prominently as a man of
faith (see e.g., Hebrews 11), and the apostle Paul uses him as
an example of salvation by faith (in e.g. Galatians 3).
The Orthodox view in Christianity is that the promises made to
Abraham are still valid to the Jewish nation, though some remain
as yet unfulfilled.
The Roman Catholic Church calls Abraham "our father in Faith,"
in the Eucharistic prayer called Roman Canon, recited during Mass.
Christian tradition sees Abraham as a figure of God, and Abraham's
attempt to offer up Isaac is a foreshadow of God's offering of
his Son, Jesus (Gen. 22:1-14; Heb. 11:17-19).
Abraham in Islam
Abraham - called Ibrahim in Islam - is very important to Islam,
both in his own right and as the father of Ismail (Ishmael), his
Abraham (Ibrahim) is considered one of the first and most important
prophets of Islam, and is commonly termed Khalil Ullah, Friend
of God. (Islam regards most of the Old Testament "patriarchs"
as prophets of God, and hence as Muslims.) While most Muslims
believe that Adam, the first man, was the first Muslim (submitter
to God), they universally agree that Abraham was a prophet of
God (Allah is simply Arabic for God).
According to the Quran, Abraham reached the conclusion that anything
subject to disappearance could not be worthy of worship, and thus
became a monotheist (Quran 6:76-83.) As in Jewish tradition, Abraham's
father (named Azar in Islam) was an idol-maker, and Abraham broke
his idols, calling on his community to worship God instead. They
then cast him into a fire, which miraculously failed to burn him
(Quran 37:83-98.) The well-known but wholly non-canonical Qisas
al-Anbiya (Ibn Kathir) records considerably more detail about
his life, which are commonly referred to in Islamic accounts of
referred to in Islamic accounts of his life (http://iisca.org/knowledge/biographies/ibrahim_1.htm).
Traditionally, Muslims believe that it was Ishmael rather than
Isaac whom Abraham was told to sacrifice. In support of this,
Muslims note that the text of Genesis as it stands, despite specifying
Isaac, appears to state that Abraham was told to sacrifice his
only son ("Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest,
even Isaac," Jewish Publication Society (http://www.breslov.com/bible/)
translation, Genesis/Bereshit 22:2) to God. Since Isaac was Abraham's
second son, there was no time at which he would have been Abraham's
only son, so they take this to imply that the original text must
have named Ishmael rather than Isaac as the intended sacrifice.
The Qur'an itself does not specify which son he nearly sacrificed
The entire episode of the sacrifice is regarded as a trial that
Abraham had to face from God. It is celebrated by Muslims on the
day of Eid ul-Adha. Muslims also believe that Abraham, along with
his son Ishmael, rebuilt the Kaaba in Mecca (Quran 2.125.)
He is one of the most important prophets in Islam, and Muslims
have a specific dua that (in some traditions) they recite daily
which asks God to bless both Abraham and Muhammad. According to
Islamic tradition, he is buried in Hebron. In the Masjid al Haram
in Mecca, there is an area known as the "station of Ibrahim" (Maqam
Ibrahim) which supposedly bears an impression of his footprints.
Abraham and his descendants
Biblical narratives represent Abraham as an idealized sheikh
(with one important exception, Gen. 14, see below). As the father
of Isaac and Ishmael, he is ultimately the common ancestor of
the Israelites and their nomadic fierce neighbours. As the father
of Midian, Sheba and other Arabian tribes (25:1-4), it seems that
some degree of kinship was felt by the Hebrews with the dwellers
of the more distant south, and it is characteristic of the genealogies
that the mothers (Sarah, Hagar and Keturah) are in the descending
scale as regards purity of blood.
As stated above, Abraham came from Ur in Babylonia and Haran
and thence to Canaan. Late tradition supposed that the migration
was to escape Babylonian idolatry (Judith 5, Jubilees 12; cf.
Joshua 24:2), and knew of Abraham's miraculous escape from death
(an obscure reference to some act of deliverance in Isaiah 29:22).
The route along the banks of the Euphrates from south to north
was so frequently taken by migrating tribes that the tradition
has nothing improbable in itself, but the prominence given in
the older narratives to the view that Haran was the home gives
this the preference. It was thence that Jacob, the father of the
tribes of Israel, came and the route to Shechem and Bethel is
precisely the same in both. A twofold migration is doubtful, and,
from what is known of the situation in Palestine in the 15th century
BC, is extremely improbable.
Further, there is yet another parallel in the story of the conquest
by Joshua, partly implied and partly actually detailed (cf. also
Joshua 8:9 with Gen. 12:8, 13:3), whence it would appear that
too much importance must not be laid upon any ethnological interpretation
which fails to account for the three versions. That similar traditional
elements have influenced them is not unlikely; but to recover
the true historical foundation is difficult. The invasion or immigration
of certain tribes from the east of the Jordan; the presence of
Aramean blood among the Israelites; the origin of the sanctity
of venerable sites — these and other considerations may readily
be found to account for the traditions.
Noteworthy coincidences in the lives of Abraham and Isaac, noticed
above, point to the fluctuating state of traditions in the oral
stage, or suggest that Abraham's life has been built up by borrowing
from the common stock of popular lore. More original is the parting
of Lot and Abraham at Bethel. The district was the scene of contests
between Moab and the Hebrews (cf. perhaps Judges 3), and if this
explains part of the story, the physical configuration of the
Dead Sea may have led to the legend of the destruction of inhospitable
and vicious cities.
Different writers have regarded the life of Abraham differently.
He has been viewed as a chieftain of the Amorites, as the head
of a great Semitic migration from Mesopotamia; or, since Ur and
Haran were seats of Moon-worship, he has been identified with
a moon-god. From the character of the literary evidence and the
locale of the stories it has been held that Abraham was originally
associated with Hebron. The double name Abram/Abraham has even
suggested that two personages have been combined in the Biblical
narrative; although this does not explain the change from Sarai
to Sarah. But it is important to remember that the narratives
are not contemporary, and that the interesting discovery of the
name Abi-ramu (Abram) on Babylonian contracts of about 2000 BC
does not prove the Abram of the Old Testament to be an historical
person, even as the fact that there were "Amorites" in Babylonia
at the same period does not make it certain that the patriarch
was one of their number. One remarkable chapter associates Abraham
with kings of Elam and the east (Genesis 14). No longer a peaceful
sheikh but a warrior with a small army of 318 followers, he overthrows
a combination of powerful monarchs who have ravaged the land.
The genuineness of the narrative has been strenuously maintained,
although upon insufficient grounds.
On the assumption that a recollection of some invasion in remote
days may have been current, considerable interest is attached
to the names. Of these, Amraphel, king of Shinar (i.e. Babylonia,
Genesis 10:10), has been in the past identified with Hammurabi,
one of the greatest of the Babylonian kings (c. 2000 BC), and
since he claims to have ruled as far west as the Mediterranean
Sea, the equation has found considerable favour. Apart from chronological
difficulties, the identification of the king and his country is
far from certain, and at the most can only be regarded as possible.
Arioch, king of Ellasar, has been connected with Eriaku of Larsa
— the reading has been questioned — a contemporary with Hammurabi.
Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, bears what is doubtless a genuine
Elamite name. Finally, the name of Tid'al, king of Goiim, may
be identical with a certain Tudhulu the son of Gazza, a warrior,
but apparently not a king, who is mentioned in a Babylonian inscription,
and Goiim may stand for Gutim, the Guti being a people who lived
to the east of Kurdistan. Nevertheless, there is as yet no monumental
evidence in favour of the genuineness of the story, and at the
most it can only be said that the author (of whatever date) has
derived his names from a trustworthy source, and in representing
an invasion of Palestine by Babylonian overlords has given expression
to a possible situation. The improbabilities and internal difficulties
of the narrative remain untouched, only the bare outlines may
very well be historical. If, as most critics agree, it is a historical
romance (cf., e.g., the book of Judith), it is possible that a
writer, preferably one who lived in the post-exilic age and was
acquainted with Babylonian history, desired to enhance the greatness
of Abraham by exhibiting his military success against the monarchs
of the Tigris and Euphrates, the high esteem he enjoyed in Palestine
and the practical character displayed in his brief exchange with
Melchizedek. On the probable historicity of this meeting between
Abra(ha)m and Melchizedek, see Melchizedek and the historical
section there. See also the historical section of the article
Tithe, which provides more evidence on the historicity of the
meeting with Melchizedek.
Several professors of archeology claim that many stories in the
Old Testament, including important chronicles about Abraham, Moses,
and others, were actually made up by scribes hired by King Josiah
(7th century BC) in order to rationalize monotheistic belief in
Yahweh. Evidently, the neighboring countries that kept many written
records, such as Egypt, Assyria, etc., have no writings about
the stories of the Bible or its main characters before 650 BC.
Such claims are detailed in "Who Were the Early Israelites?" by
William G. Dever, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids,
MI (2003). Another such book by Neil A. Silberman and colleagues
is "The Bible Unearthed," Simon and Schuster, New York (2001).
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