Abraham, the patriarch of Israel, was originally known as Abram, high father, from Abu-ramu, exalted father. Abraham was a native of Chaldea, and descendant in the ninth generation of Shem, the son of Noah. Abraham, whose father was Terah, was born in Ur, 2161 BC (Genesis 11:27). When called by God, he traveled from Ur to Canaan when being promised that he would become the father of a great nation. It is Biblically recorded that Abraham was around seventy years of age at the time of his divine calling. Accompanying him was his father, his nephew Lot, and his wife Sarah; they took up abode in Haran (Genesis 11:27-31). His divine calling was repeated, Abraham received the first calling before reaching Haran while in Mesopotamia, after the death of his father the call was renewed (Genesis 12:1-3). As part of the second calling a further stipulation was made that he should leave his father’s house, which Abraham took to mean that he was also to separate himself from his brother Nahor and family who also was in Haran. He departed with his wife and Lot, who at the time was probably thought to become his heir (Josephus Ant., i, 7,1). Abraham traveled to Canaan, then to Egypt, but returned to Canaan. There Abraham lived and prospered; his wealth resulted in the separation of him and Lot. The land could not support their combined herds. In order to avoid strife between them that possibly would promote weakness and conquest by enemies Abraham gave Lot a choice of selecting other land for his own. Lot chose the plain of Jordan.
Abraham was still childless, and with Lot’s departure, the apparent heir was gone. However, Abraham still believed in God’s promise that he would be the father of a great nation; he remembered the promise that his seed should be as the stars of heaven for number, and that his prosperity should grow up into a nation under foreign bondage, and that after four hundred years they should come up and possess the land (Genesis 15). But he had been in Canaan ten years, and was still without heirs. Abraham felt it was time, beside his wife Sarah was seventy-five, and most likely past childbearing age. Sarah, knowing of her husband’s concern, persuaded Abraham to take her handmaid Hagar who bore his son Ishmael (Genesis 16), 2076 BC.
Some thirteen years passed, Abraham was ninety-nine when God spoke to him again, the covenant was again renewed which included more promises. His name of Abram was changed to Abraham. It was announced that Sarah was to be the mother of Isaac within a year, and Isaac was heir to the promised which Abraham had been given. Abraham wavered and prayed for Ishmael whom God promised to bless, but confirmed the promised which Abraham was given would come through Isaac. Added to this renewed covenant was the condition of circumcision. Abraham, on that very day, was circumcised along with Ishmael and all males in his household (Genesis 17).
Not long after the promise was repeated during a visit from three angels, the “Angel of Jehovah” and two attendants. The son of Sarah was predicted, and her incredulity rebuked. Shortly thereafter God revealed to Abraham the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham pleaded for their salvation (Genesis 18). Then Abraham traveled northward and sojourned in the land around Gerar. The king of Gerar took Sarah, but after a warning from God in a dream sent her back to Abraham the next morning. Soon after the long-awaited heir Isaac was born, 2061 BD; Abraham was one hundred and Sarah was ninety.
Isaac’s birth immediately unsettled the family situation. Ishmael position changed creating ill will between his mother and himself and other family members. Ishmael mocked Isaac as he was weaned which caused Sarah to request that he and Hagar be sent away. Abraham agreed to this reluctantly.
When Isaac was almost grown (Genesis 22-23:11) God made Abraham endure the greatest test of his faith. God commanded Abraham to take Isaac upon Mount Moriah and offer his son up, which would abolish all hopes of Abraham’s posterity. Abraham obeyed and with his son and two servants proceeded to the mountain. At a certain point he and his son went on alone. Isaac asked, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham replied, “The Lord will provide himself a lamb.” Upon a built altar Isaac was placed. As the father lifted his hand to slay his son the hand was caught in mid-air by an angel of Jehovah and a ram, caught in the thicket, was substituted for Isaac. Afterwards Abraham named the place Jehovah-jirah “the Lord will provide.” The promises formerly made to Abraham were confirmed in the most solemn manner.
Abraham next dwells in Beer-sheba (Genesis 22:1-19), and afterwards Sarah dies at one hundred and twenty-seven in or near Hebron (Genesis 23). He buried Sarah in the cave of Machpelah in the field which he purchased from Ephron the Hittite. Next Abraham seeks a wife for Isaac by sending his oldest servant back to Haran, where his brother Nahor had settled, with instructions to select a woman of their own family. Rebekah, the daughter of Nahor’s son Bethuel, is chosen, and eventually occupies Sarah’s main tent as chief lady of the camp. Eventually Abraham marries the second time to Keturah, the children of this marriage, like Ishmael, are sent away so not to interfere with Isaac. Abraham dies at the age of one hundred and seventy-five, and is buried in the cave by Sarah by Isaac and Ishmael.
The Jewish people hail Abraham as their patriarch. In the aggadah Abraham is seen as the ideal figure who kept the oral law before it was revealed. In being first to recognize God, he is the father of all proselytes and is compared with Job, as one who argued with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah. He is thought of as the prophet who “God omitted no blessing in the world with which he did not bless him” (SER 6).
Jewish philosopher used Abraham to illustrate their ideas. Philo argued that reason should be subordinated to faith on the basis of the verse that “Abraham believed the Lord and he reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Maimonides argued Abraham was the first to accept that the world came into being from nothingness, and to accept the existence of God on the basis of reason. The midrash contain legends about Abraham’s birth and childhood, stories which circulated until the Middle Ages. Abraham has been a subject for both Jewish and Christian artists.
In Christianity, Abraham is an exemplar of flawless faith and its efficacy without law (Romans 4; Galatians 3:6-9). Also, most believe that Abraham was the first person that Christ liberated on his descent into hell.
In the Qur’an, Abraham is called Ibrahim. A.G.H.
Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, pp. 10-13
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 10-11