From Bible Encyclopedia
a´bra-ham (Hebrew אברהם, 'abhrāhām̌, "father of a multitude"):
Son of Terah, named (Genesis 11:27) before his older brothers Nahor and Haran, because he was the heir of the promises. Till the age of seventy, Abram sojourned among his kindred in his native country of Chaldea. He then, with his father and his family and household, quitted the city of Ur, in which he had hitherto dwelt, and went some 300 miles north to Haran, where he abode fifteen years. The cause of his migration was a call from God (Acts 7:2-4). There is no mention of this first call in the Old Testament; it is implied, however, in Genesis 12. While they tarried at Haran, Terah died at the age of 205 years. Abram now received a second and more definite call, accompanied by a promise from God (Genesis 12:1, Genesis 12:2); whereupon he took his departure, taking his nephew Lot with him, “not knowing whither he went” (Hebrews 11:8). He trusted implicitly to the guidance of Him who had called him.
Abram now, with a large household of probably a thousand souls, entered on a migratory life, and dwelt in tents. Passing along the valley of the Jabbok, in the land of Canaan, he formed his first encampment at Sichem (Genesis 12:6), in the vale or oak-grove of Moreh, between Ebal on the north and Gerizim on the south. Here he received the great promise, “I will make of thee a great nation,” etc. (Genesis 12:2, Genesis 12:3, Genesis 12:7). This promise comprehended not only temporal but also spiritual blessings. It implied that he was the chosen ancestor of the great Deliverer whose coming had been long ago predicted (Genesis 3:15). Soon after this, for some reason not mentioned, he removed his tent to the mountain district between Bethel, then called Luz, and Ai, towns about two miles apart, where he built an altar to “Yahweh.” He again moved into the southern tract of Palestine, called by the Hebrews the Negeb; and was at length, on account of a famine, compelled to go down into Egypt. This took place in the time of the Hyksos, a Semitic race which now held the Egyptians in bondage. Here occurred that case of deception on the part of Abram which exposed him to the rebuke of Pharaoh (Genesis 12:18). Sarai was restored to him; and Pharaoh loaded him with presents, recommending him to withdraw from the country. He returned to Canaan richer than when he left it, “in cattle, in silver, and in gold” (Genesis 12:8; Genesis 13:2. Compare Psalm 105:13, Psalm 105:14). The whole party then moved northward, and returned to their previous station near Bethel. Here disputes arose between Lot's shepherds and those of Abram about water and pasturage. Abram generously gave Lot his choice of the pasture-ground. (Compare 1 Corinthians 6:7.) He chose the well-watered plain in which Sodom was situated, and removed thither; and thus the uncle and nephew were separated. Immediately after this Abram was cheered by a repetition of the promises already made to him, and then removed to the plain or “oakgrove” of Mamre, which is in Hebron. He finally settled here, pitching his tent under a famous oak or terebinth tree, called “the oak of Mamre” (Genesis 13:18). This was his third resting-place in the land.
Some fourteen years before this, while Abram was still in Chaldea, Palestine had been invaded by Chedorlaomer, King of Elam, who brought under tribute to him the five cities in the plain to which Lot had removed. This tribute was felt by the inhabitants of these cities to be a heavy burden, and after twelve years they revolted. This brought upon them the vengeance of Chedorlaomer, who had in league with him four other kings. He ravaged the whole country, plundering the towns, and carrying the inhabitants away as slaves. Among those thus treated was Lot. Hearing of the disaster that had fallen on his nephew, Abram immediately gathered from his own household a band of 318 armed men, and being joined by the Amoritish chiefs Mamre, Aner, and Eshcol, he pursued after Chedorlaomer, and overtook him near the springs of the Jordan. They attacked and routed his army, and pursued it over the range of Anti-Libanus as far as to Hobah, near Damascus, and then returned, bringing back all the spoils that had been carried away. Returning by way of Salem, i.e., Jerusalem, the king of that place, Melchizedek, came forth to meet them with refreshments. To him Abram presented a tenth of the spoils, in recognition of his character as a priest of the most high God (Genesis 14:18-20).
Having returned to his home at Mamre, the promises already made to him by God were repeated and enlarged (Genesis 13:14). “The word of the Lord” (an expression occurring here for the first time) “came to him” (Genesis 15:1). He now understood better the future that lay before the nation that was to spring from him. Sarai, now seventy-five years old, in her impatience, persuaded Abram to take Hagar, her Egyptian maid, as a concubine, intending that whatever child might be born should be reckoned as her own. Ishmael was accordingly thus brought up, and was regarded as the heir of these promises (Genesis 16). When Ishmael was thirteen years old, God again revealed yet more explicitly and fully his gracious purpose; and in token of the sure fulfillment of that purpose the patriarch's name was now changed from Abram to Abraham (Genesis 17:4, Genesis 17:5), and the rite of circumcision was instituted as a sign of the covenant. It was then announced that the heir to these covenant promises would be the son of Sarai, though she was now ninety years old; and it was directed that his name should be Isaac. At the same time, in commemoration of the promises, Sarai's name was changed to Sarah. On that memorable day of God's thus revealing his design, Abraham and his son Ishmael and all the males of his house were circumcised (Genesis 17). Three months after this, as Abraham sat in his tent door, he saw three men approaching. They accepted his proffered hospitality, and, seated under an oak-tree, partook of the fare which Abraham and Sarah provided. One of the three visitants was none other than the Lord, and the other two were angels in the guise of men. The Lord renewed on this occasion his promise of a son by Sarah, who was rebuked for her unbelief. Abraham accompanied the three as they proceeded on their journey. The two angels went on toward Sodom; while the Lord tarried behind and talked with Abraham, making known to him the destruction that was about to fall on that guilty city. The patriarch interceded earnestly in behalf of the doomed city. But as not even ten righteous persons were found in it, for whose sake the city would have been spared, the threatened destruction fell upon it; and early next morning Abraham saw the smoke of the fire that consumed it as the “smoke of a furnace” (Genesis 19:1-28).
After fifteen years' residence at Mamre, Abraham moved southward, and pitched his tent among the Philistines, near to Gerar. Here occurred that sad instance of prevarication on his part in his relation to Abimelech the King (Genesis 20). (See Abimelech.) Soon after this event, the patriarch left the vicinity of Gerar, and moved down the fertile valley about 25 miles to Beer-Sheba. It was probably here that Isaac was born, Abraham being now an hundred years old. A feeling of jealousy now arose between Sarah and Hagar, whose son, Ishmael, was no longer to be regarded as Abraham's heir. Sarah insisted that both Hagar and her son should be sent away. This was done, although it was a hard trial to Abraham (Genesis 21:12).
At this point there is a blank in the patriarch's history of perhaps twenty-five years. These years of peace and happiness were spent at Beer-sheba. The next time we see him his faith is put to a severe test by the command that suddenly came to him to go and offer up Isaac, the heir of all the promises, as a sacrifice on one of the mountains of Moriah. His faith stood the test (Hebrews 11:17-19). He proceeded in a spirit of unhesitating obedience to carry out the command; and when about to slay his son, whom he had laid on the altar, his uplifted hand was arrested by the angel of Yahweh, and a ram, which was entangled in a thicket near at hand, was seized and offered in his stead. From this circumstance that place was called Jehovah-Jireh, i.e., “The Lord will provide.” The promises made to Abraham were again confirmed (and this was the last recorded word of God to the patriarch); and he descended the mount with his son, and returned to his home at Beer-Sheba (Genesis 22:19), where he resided for some years, and then moved northward to Hebron.
Some years after this Sarah died at Hebron, being 127 years old. Abraham acquired now the needful possession of a burying-place, the cave of Machpelah, by purchase from the owner of it, Ephron the Hittite (Genesis 23); and there he buried Sarah. His next care was to provide a wife for Isaac, and for this purpose he sent his steward, Eliezer, to Haran (or Charran, Acts 7:2), where his brother Nahor and his family resided (Genesis 11:31). The result was that Rebekah, the daughter of Nahor's son Bethuel, became the wife of Isaac (Genesis 24). Abraham then himself took to wife Keturah, who became the mother of six sons, whose descendants were afterwards known as the “children of the east” (Judges 6:3), and later as “Saracens.” At length all his wanderings came to an end. At the age of 175 years, 100 years after he had first entered the land of Canaan, he died, and was buried in the old family burying-place at Machpelah (Genesis 25:7-10).
The history of Abraham made a wide and deep impression on the ancient world, and references to it are interwoven in the religious traditions of almost all Eastern nations. He is called “the friend of God” (James 2:23), “faithful Abraham” (Galatians 3:9), “the father of us all” (Romans 4:16).
1. Various Forms
In the Old Testament, when applied, to the patriarch, the name appears as אברם, 'abhrām, up to Genesis 17:5; thereafter always as אברהם, 'abhrāhām̌. Two other persons are named אבירם, 'ăbhīrām̌. The identity of this name with 'abhrām cannot be doubted in view of the variation between 'ăbhīnēr and 'abhnēr, 'ăbhīshālōm and 'abhshālōm, etc. Abraham also appears in the list at Karnak of places conquered by Sheshonk I: 'brm (no. 72) represents ברם), with which Spiegelberg (Aegypt. Randglossen zum Altes Testament, 14) proposes to connect the preceding name (so that the whole would read “the field of Abram.” Outside of Palestine this name (Abirāmu) has come to light just where from the Biblical tradition we should expect to find it, namely, in Babylonia (e.g. in a contract of the reign of Apil-Sin, second predecessor of H̬ammurabi; also for the aunt (!) of Esarhaddon 680-669 BC). Ungnad has recently found it, among documents from Dilbat dating from the H̬ammurabi dynasty, in the forms A-ba-am-ra-ma, A-ba-am-ra-am, as well as A-ba-ra-ma.
Until this latest discovery of the apparently full, historical form of the Babylonian equivalent, the best that could be done with the etymology was to make the first constituent “father of” (construct -i rather than suffix -i), and the second constituent “Ram,” a proper name or an abbreviation of a name. (Yet observe above its use in Assyria for a woman; compare Abishag; Abigail). Some were inclined rather to concede that the second element was a mystery, like the second element in the majority of names beginning with 'ābh and 'aḥ, “father” and “brother.” But the full cuneiform writing of the name, with the case-ending am, indicates that the noun “father” is in the accusative, governed by the verb which furnishes the second component, and that this verb therefore is probably rāmu (= Hebrew רחם, rāḥam) “to love,” etc.; so that the name would mean something like “he loves the (his) father.” (So Ungnad, also Ranke in Gressmann's article “Sage und Geschichte in den Patriarchenerzahlungen,” ZATW (1910), 3.) Analogy proves that this is in the Babylonian fashion of the period, and that judging from the various writings of this and similar names, its pronunciation was not far from 'abh-rām̌.
While the name is thus not “Hebrew” in origin, it made itself thoroughly at home among the Hebrews, and to their ears conveyed associations quite different from its etymological signification. “Popular etymology” here as so often doubtless led the Hebrew to hear in 'abh-rām, “exalted father,” a designation consonant with the patriarch's national and religious significance. In the form 'abh-rāhām his ear caught the echo of some root (perhaps r-h-m; compare Arabic ruhām, “multitude”) still more suggestive of the patriarch's extensive progeny, the reason (“for”) that accompanies the change of name Genesis 17:5 being intended only as a verbal echo of the sense in the sound. This longer and commoner form is possibly a dialectical variation of the shorter form, a variation for which there are analogies in comparative Semitic grammar. It is, however, possible also that the two forms are different names, and that 'abh-rāhām is etymologically, and not merely by association of sound, “father of a multitude” (as above). (Another theory, based on South-Arabic orthography, in Hommel, Altisraelitische Ueberlieferung, 177.)
Genesis 11:27, which introduces Abraham, contains the heading, “These are the generations of Terah.” All the story of Abraham is contained within the section of Genesis so entitled. Through Terah Abraham's ancestry is traced back to Shem, and he is thus related to Mesopotamian and Arabian families that belonged to the “Semitic” race. He is further connected with this race geographically by his birthplace, which is given as 'ūr-kasdīm (see Ur), and by the place of his pre-Canaanitish residence, Haran in the Aramean region. The purely Semitic ancestry of his descendants through Isaac is indicated by his marriage with his own half-sister (Genesis 20:12), and still further emphasized by the choice for his daughter-in-law of Rebekah, descended from both of his brothers, Nahor and Haran (Genesis 11:29; Genesis 22:22). Both the beginning and the end of the residence in Haran are left chronologically undetermined, for the new beginning of the narrative at Genesis 12:1 is not intended by the writer to indicate chronological sequence, though it has been so understood, e.g. by Stephen (Acts 7:4). All that is definite in point of time is that an Aramean period of residence intervened between the Babylonian origin and the Palestinian career of Abraham. It is left to a comparison of the Biblical data with one another and with the data of archaeology, to fix the opening of Abraham's career in Palestine not far from the middle of the 20th century BC.
Briefiy summed up, that career was as follows.
1. Period of Wandering
Abraham, endowed with Yahweh's promise of limitless blessing, leaves Haran with Lot his nephew and all their establishment, and enters Canaan. Successive stages of the slow journey southward are indicated by the mention of Shechem, Bethel and the Negeb (South-country). Driven by famine into Egypt, Abraham finds hospitable reception, though at the price of his wife's honor, whom the Pharaoh treats in a manner characteristic of an Egyptian monarch. (Gressmann, op. cit., quotes from Meyer, Geschichte des Alterthums, 12, 142, the passage from a magic formula in the pyramid of Unas, a Pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty: “Then he (namely, the Pharaoh) takes away the wives from their husbands whither he will if desire seize his heart.”) Retracing the path to Canaan with an augmented train, at Bethel Abraham and Lot find it necessary to part company. Lot and his dependents choose for residence the great Jordan Depression; Abraham follows the backbone of the land southward to Hebron, where he settles, not in the city, but before its gates “by the great trees” (Septuagint sing., “oak”) of Mamre.
2. Period of Residence at Hebron
Affiliation between Abraham and the local chieftains is strengthened by a brief campaign, in which all unite their available forces for the rescue of Lot from an Elamite king and his confederates from Babylonia. The pursuit leads them as far as the Lebanon region. On the return they are met by Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of 'ēl ‛elyōn, and blessed by him in his priestly capacity, which Abraham recognizes by presenting him with a tithe of the spoils. Abraham's anxiety for a son to be the bearer of the divine promises conferred upon a “seed” yet unborn should have been relieved by the solemn renewal thereof in a formal covenant, with precise specifications of God's gracious purpose. But human desire cannot wait upon divine wisdom, and the Egyptian woman Hagar bears to Abraham a son, Ishmael, whose existence from its inception proves a source of moral evil within the patriarchal household. The sign of circumcision and the change of names are given in confirmation of the covenant still unrealized, together with specification of the time and the person that should begin its realization. The theophany that symbolized outwardly this climax of the Divine favor serves also for an intercessory colloquy, in which Abraham is granted the deliverance of Lot in the impending overthrow of Sodom. Lot and his family, saved thus by human fidelity and Divine clemency, exhibit in the moral traits shown in their escape and subsequent life the degeneration naturally to be expected from their corrupt environment. Moabites and Ammonites are traced in their origin to these cousins of Jacob and Esau.
3. Period of Residence in the Negeb
Removal to the South-country did not mean permanent residence in a single spot, but rather a succession of more or less temporary resting-places. The first of these was in the district of Gerar, with whose king, Abimelech, Abraham and his wife had an experience similar to the earlier one with the Pharaoh. The birth of Isaac was followed by the expulsion of Ishmael and his mother, and the sealing of peaceful relations with the neighbors by covenant at Beersheba. Even the birth of Isaac, however, did not end the discipline of Abraham's faith in the promise, for a Divine command to sacrifice the life of this son was accepted bona fide, and only the sudden interposition of a Divine prohibition prevented its obedient execution. The death of Sarah became the occasion for Abraham's acquisition of the first permanent holding of Palestine soil, the nucleus of his promised inheritance, and at the same time suggested the probable approach of his own death. This thought led to immediate provision for a future seed to inherit through Isaac, a provision realized in Isaac's marriage with Rebekah, grand-daughter of Abraham's brother Nahor and of Milcah the sister of Lot. But a numerous progeny not associated with the promise grew up in Abraham's household, children of Keturah, a woman who appears to have had the rank of wife after Sarah's death, and of other women unnamed, who were his concubines. Though this last period was passed in the Negeb, Abraham was interred at Hebron in his purchased possession, the spot with which Semitic tradition has continued to associate him to this day.
IV. Conditions of Life
The life of Abraham in its outward features may be considered under the following topics: economic, social, political and cultural conditions.
1. Economic Conditions
Abraham's manner of life may best be described by the adjective “semi-nomadic,” and illustrated by the somewhat similar conditions prevailing today in those border-communities of the East that fringe the Syrian and Arabian deserts. Residence is in tents, wealth consists of flocks, herds and slaves, and there is no ownership of ground, only at most a proprietorship in well or tomb. All this in common with the nomad. But there is a relative, or rather, intermittent fixity of habitation, unlike the pure Bedouin, a limited amount of agriculture, and finally a sense of divergence from the Ishmael type - all of which tend to assimilate the seminomadic Abraham to the fixed Canaanitish population about him. As might naturally be expected, such a condition is an unstable equilibrium, which tends, in the family of Abraham as in the history of all border-tribes of the desert, to settle back one way or the other, now into the city-life of Lot, now into the desert-life of Ishmael.
2. Social Conditions
The head of a family, under these conditions, becomes at the same time the chief of a tribe, that live together under patriarchal rule though they by no means share without exception the tie of kinship. The family relations depicted in Gen conform to and are illuminated by the social features of Code of H̬ammurabi. (See K. D. Macmillan, article “Marriage among the Early Babylonians and Hebrews,” Princeton Theological Review, April, 1908.) There is one legal wife, Sarah, who, because persistently childless, obtains the coveted offspring by giving her own maid to Abraham for that purpose (compare Code of H̬ammurabi, sections 144, 146). The son thus borne, Ishmael, is Abraham's legal son and heir. When Isaac is later borne by Sarah, the elder son is disinherited by divine command (Genesis 21:10-12) against Abraham's wish which represented the prevailing law and custom (Code of H̬ammurabi, sections 168f). The “maid-servants” mentioned in the inventories of Abraham's wealth (Genesis 12:16; Genesis 24:35) doubtless furnished the “concubines” mentioned in [[Genesis 25:6 as having borne sons to him. Both mothers and children were slaves, but had the right to freedom, though not to inheritance, on the death of the father (Code of H̬ammurabi, section 171). After Sarah's death another woman seems to have succeeded to the position of legal wife, though if so the sons she bore were disinherited like Ishmael (Genesis 25:5). In addition to the children so begotten by Abraham the “men of his house” (Genesis 17:27) consisted of two classes, the “home-born” slaves (Genesis 14:14; Genesis 17:12, Genesis 17:23, Genesis 17:27) and the “purchased” slaves (ibid.). The extent of the patriarchal tribe may be surmised from the number (318) of men among them capable of bearing arms, near the beginning of Abraham's career, yet after his separation from Lot, and recruited seemingly from the “home-born” class exclusively (Genesis 14:14). Over this entire establishment Abraham ruled with a power more, rather than less, absolute than that exhibited in detail in the Code of H̬ammurabi: more absolute, because Abraham was independent of any permanent superior authority, and so combined in his own person the powers of the Babylonian paterfamilias and of the Canaanite city-king. Social relations outside of the family-tribe may best be considered under the next heading.
3. Political Conditions
It is natural that the chieftain of so considerable an organism should appear an attractive ally and a formidable foe to any of the smaller political units of his environment. That Canaan was at the time composed of just such inconsiderable units, namely, city-states with petty kings, and scattered fragments of older populations, is abundantly clear from the Biblical tradition and verified from other sources. Egypt was the only great power with which Abraham came into political contact after leaving the East. In the section of Genesis which describes this contact with the Pharaoh Abraham is suitably represented as playing no political role, but as profiting by his stay in Egypt only through an incidental social relation: when this terminates he is promptly ejected. The role of conqueror of Chedorlaomer, the Elamite invader, would be quite out of keeping with Abraham's political status elsewhere, if we were compelled by the narrative in Gen 14 to suppose a pitched battle between the forces of Abraham and those of the united Babylonian armies. What that chapter requires is in fact no more than a midnight surprise, by Abraham's band (including the forces of confederate chieftains), of a rear-guard or baggage-train of the Babylonians inadequately manned and picketed (“Slaughter” is quite too strong a rendering of the original hakkōth, “smiting,” Genesis 14:17) Respect shown Abraham by the kings of Salem (Genesis 14:18), of Sodom (Genesis 14:21) and of Gerar (Genesis 20:14-16) was no more than might be expected from their relative degrees of political importance, although a moral precedence, assumed in the tradition, may well have contributed to this respect.
4. Cultural Conditions
Recent archaeological research has revolutionized our conception of the degree of culture which Abraham could have possessed and therefore presumably did possess. The high plane which literature had attained in both Babylonia and Egypt by 2000 bc is sufficient witness to the opportunities open to the man of birth and wealth in that day for the interchange of lofty thought. And, without having recourse to Abraham's youth in Babylonia, we may assert even for the scenes of Abraham's maturer life the presence of the same culture, on the basis of a variety of facts, the testimony of which converges in this point, that Canaan in the second millennium bc was at the center of the intellectual life of the East and cannot have failed to afford, to such of its inhabitants as chose to avail themselves of it, every opportunity for enjoying the fruits of others' culture and for recording the substance of their own thoughts, emotions and activities
Abraham's inward life may be considered under the rubrics of religion, ethics and personal traits.
1. Religious Beliefs
The religion of Abraham centered in his faith in one God, who, because believed by him to be possessor of heaven and earth (Genesis 14:22; Genesis 24:3), sovereign judge of the nations (Genesis 15:14) of all the earth (Genesis 18:25), disposer of the forces of Nature (Genesis 18:14; Genesis 19:24; Genesis 20:17), exalted (Genesis 14:22) and eternal (Genesis 21:33), was for Abraham at least the only God. So far as the Biblical tradition goes, Abraham's monotheism was not aggressive (otherwise in later Jewish tradition), and it is theoretically possible to attribute to him a merely “monarchical” or “henotheistic” type of monotheism, which would admit the coexistence with his deity, say, of the “gods which (his) fathers served” (Joshua 24:14), or the identity with his deity of the supreme god of some Canaanite neighbor (Genesis 14:18). Yet this distinction of types of monotheism does not really belong to the sphere of religion as such, but rather to that of speculative philosophical thought. As religion, monotheism is just monotheism, and it asserts itself in corollaries drawn by the intellect only so far as the scope of the monotheist's intellectual life applies it. For Abraham Yahweh not only was alone God; He was also his personal God in a closeness of fellowship (Genesis 24:40; Genesis 48:15) that has made him for three religions the type of the pious man (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8, James 2:23, note the Arabic name of Hebron El-Khalīl, i.e. the friend (viz of God)) To Yahweh Abraham attributed the moral attributes of Justice (Genesis 18:25), righteousness (Genesis 18:19), faithfulness (Genesis 24:27), wisdom (Genesis 20:6), goodness (Genesis 19:19), mercy (Genesis 20:6). These qualities were expected of men, and their contraries in men were punished by Yahweh (Genesis 18:19; Genesis 20:11). He manifested Himself in dreams (Genesis 20:3), visions (Genesis 15:1) and theophanies (Genesis 18:1), including the voice or apparition of the Divine mal'ākh or messenger (“angel”) (Genesis 16:7; Genesis 22:11) On man's part, in addition to obedience to Yahweh's moral requirements and special commands, the expression of his religious nature was expected in sacrifice. This bringing of offerings to the deity was diligently practiced by Abraham, as indicated by the mention of his erection of an altar at each successive residence. Alongside of this act of sacrifice there is sometimes mention of a “calling upon the name” of Yahweh (compare 1 Kings 18:24; Psalm 116:13). This publication of his faith, doubtless in the presence of Canaanites, had its counterpart also in the public regard in which he was held as a “prophet” or spokesman for God (Genesis 20:7). His mediation showed itself also in intercessory prayer (Genesis 17:20 for Ishmael; Genesis 18:23-32; compare Genesis 19:29 for Lot; Genesis 20:17 for Abimelech), which was but a phase of his general practice of prayer. The usual accompaniment of sacrifice, a professional priesthood, does not occur in Abraham's family, yet he recognizes priestly prerogative in the person of Melchizedek, priest-king of Salem (Genesis 14:20). Religious sanction of course surrounds the taking of oaths (Genesis 14:22; Genesis 24:3) and the sealing of covenants (Genesis 21:23). Other customs associated with religion are circumcision (Genesis 17:10-14), given to Abraham as the sign of the perpetual covenant; tithing (Genesis 14:20), recognized as the priest's due; and child-sacrifice (Genesis 22:2, Genesis 22:12), enjoined upon Abraham only to be expressly forbidden, approved for its spirit but interdicted in its practice.
As already indicated, the ethical attributes of God were regarded by Abraham as the ethical requirement of man. This in theory. In the sphere of applied ethics and casuistry Abraham's practice, at least, fell short of this ideal, even in the few incidents of his life preserved to us. It is clear that these lapses from virtue were offensive to the moral sense of Abraham's biographer, but we are left in the dark as to Abraham's sense of moral obliquity. (The “dust and ashes” of Genesis 18:27 has no moral implication.) The demands of candor and honor are not satisfactorily met, certainly not in the matter of Sarah's relationship to him (Genesis 12:11-13; Genesis 20:2; compare Genesis 12:11-13), perhaps not in the matter of Isaac's intended sacrifice (Genesis 22:5, Genesis 22:8). To impose our own monogamous standard of marriage upon the patriarch would be unfair, in view of the different standard of his age and land. It is to his credit that no such scandals are recorded in his life and family as blacken the record of Lot (Genesis 19:30-38), Reuben (Genesis 35:22) and Judah (Genesis 38:15-18). Similarly, Abraham's story shows only regard for life and property, both in respecting the rights of others and in expecting the same from them - the antipodes of Ishmael's character (Genesis 16:12).
3. Personal Traits
Outside, the bounds of strictly ethical requirement, Abraham's personality displayed certain characteristics that not only mark him out distinctly among the figures of history, but do him great credit as a singularly symmetrical and attractive character. Of his trust and reverence enough has been said under the head of religion. But this love that is “the fulfilling of the law,” manifested in such piety toward God, showed itself toward men in exceptional generosity (Genesis 13:9; Genesis 14:23; Genesis 23:9, Genesis 23:13; Genesis 24:10; Genesis 25:6), fidelity (Genesis 14:14, Genesis 14:24; Genesis 17:18; Genesis 18:23-32; Genesis 19:27; Genesis 21:11; Genesis 23:2), hospitality (Genesis 18:2-8; Genesis 21:8) and compassion (Genesis 16:6 and Genesis 21:14 when rightly understood, Genesis 18:23-32). A solid self-respect (Genesis 14:23; Genesis 16:6; Genesis 21:25; Genesis 23:9, Genesis 23:13, Genesis 23:16; Genesis 24:4) and real courage (Genesis 14:14-16) were, however, marred by the cowardice that sacrificed Sarah to purchase personal safety where he had reason to regard life as insecure (Genesis 20:11).
VI. Significance in the History of Religion
Abraham is a significant figure throughout the Bible, and plays an important role in extra-Biblical Jewish tradition.
1. In the Old Testament
It is naturally as progenitor of the people of Israel, “the seed of Abraham,” as they are often termed, that Abraham stands out most prominently in the Old Testament books. Sometimes the contrast between him as an individual and his numerous progeny serves to point a lesson (Isaiah 51:2; Ezekiel 33:24; perhaps Malachi 2:10; compare Malachi 2:15). “The God of Abraham” serves as a designation of YHWH from the time of Isaac to the latest period; it is by this title that Moses identifies the God who has sent him with the ancestral deity of the children of Israel (Exodus 3:15). Men remembered in those later times that this God appeared to Abraham in theophany (Exodus 6:3), and, when he was still among his people who worshipped other gods (Joshua 24:3) chose him (Nehemiah 9:7), led him, redeemed him (Isaiah 29:22) and made him the recipient of those special blessings (Micah 7:20) which were pledged by covenant and oath (so every larger historical book, also the historical Psalm 105:9), notably the inheritance of the land of Canaan (Deuteronomy 6:10) Nor was Abraham's religious personality forgotten by his posterity: he was remembered by them as God's friend (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8), His servant, the very recollection of whom by God would offset the horror with which the sins of his descendants inspired YHWH (Deuteronomy 9:27).
2. In the New Testament
When we pass to the New Testament we are astonished at the wealth and variety of allusion to Abraham. As in the Old Testament, his position of ancestor lends him much of his significance, not only as ancestor of Israel (Acts 13:26), but specifically as ancestor, now of the Levitical priesthood (Hebrews 7:5), now of the Messiah (Matthew 1:1), now, by the peculiarly Christian doctrine of the unity of believers in Christ, of Christian believers (Galatians 3:16, Galatians 3:29). All that Abraham the ancestor received through Divine election, by the covenant made with him, is inherited by his seed and passes under the collective names of the promise (Romans 4:13), the blessing (Galatians 3:14), mercy (Luke 1:54), the oath (Luke 1:73), the covenant (Acts 3:25). The way in which Abraham responded to this peculiar goodness of God makes him the type of the Christian believer. Though so far in the past that he was used as a measure of antiquity (John 8:58), he is declared to have “seen” Messiah's “day” (John 8:56). It is his faith in the Divine promise, which, just because it was for him peculiarly unsupported by any evidence of the senses, becomes the type of the faith that leads to justification (Romans 4:3), and therefore in this sense again he is the “father” of Christians, as believers (Romans 4:11). For that promise to Abraham was, after all, a “preaching beforehand” of the Christian gospel, in that it embraced “all the families of the earth” (Galatians 3:8). Of this exalted honor, James reminds us, Abraham proved himself worthy, not by an inoperative faith, but by “works” that evidenced his righteousness (James 2:21; compare John 8:39). The obedience that faith wrought in him is what is especially praised by the author of Hebrews (Hebrews 11:8, Hebrews 11:17). In accordance with this high estimate of the patriarch's piety, we read of his eternal felicity, not only in the current conceptions of the Jews (parable, Luke 16), but also in the express assertion of our Lord (Matthew 8:11; Luke 13:28). Incidental historical allusions to the events of Abraham's life are frequent in the New Testament, but do not add anything to this estimate of his religious significance.
3. In Jewish Tradition
Outside the Scriptures we have abundant evidence of the way that Abraham was regarded by his posterity in the Jewish nation. The oldest of these witnesses, Ecclesiasticus, contains none of the accretions of the later Abraham-legends. Its praise of Abraham is confined to the same three great facts that appealed to the canonical writers, namely, his glory as Israel's ancestor, his election to be recipient of the covenant, and his piety (including perhaps a tinge of “nomism”) even under severe testing (Ecclesiasticus 44:19-21). The Improbable and often unworthy and even grotesque features of Abraham's career and character in the later rabbinical midrashim are of no religious significance, beyond the evidence they afford of the way Abraham's unique position and piety were cherished by the Jews.
VII. Interpretations of the Story Other than the Historical
There are writers in both ancient and modern times who have, from various standpoints, interpreted the person and career of Abraham otherwise than as what it purports to be, namely, the real experiences of a human person named Abraham. These various views may be classified according to the motive or impulse which they believe to have led to the creation of this story in the mind of its author or authors.
1. The Allegorical Interpretation
Philo's tract on Abraham bears as alternative titles, “On the Life of the Wise Man Made Perfect by Instruction, or, On the Unwritten Law.” Abraham's life is not for him a history that serves to illustrate these things, but an allegory by which these things are embodied. Paul's use of the Sarah-Hagar episode in Galatians 4:21-31 belongs to this type of exposition (compare allēgoroúmena, Galatians 4:24), of which there are also a few other instances in his epistles; yet to infer from this that Paul shared Philo's general attitude toward the patriarchal narrative would be unwarranted, since his use of this method is incidental, exceptional, and merely corroborative of points already established by sound reason. “Luther compares it to a painting which decorates a house already built” (Schaff, “Galatians,” Excursus).
2. The Personification Theory
As to Philo Abraham is the personification of a certain type of humanity, so to some modern writers he is the personification of the Hebrew nation or of a tribe belonging to the Hebrew group. This view, which is indeed very widely held with respect to the patriarchal figures in general, furnishes so many more difficulties in its specific application to Abraham than to the others, that it has been rejected in Abraham's case even by some who have adopted it for figures like Isaac, Ishmael and Jacob. Thus Meyer (Die Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstamme, 250; compare also note on p. 251), speaking of his earlier opinion, acknowledges that, at the time when he “regarded the assertion of Stade as proved that Jacob and Isaac were tribes,” even then he “still recognized Abraham as a mythical figure and originally a god.” A similar differentiation of Abraham from the rest is true of most of the other adherents of the views about to be mentioned. Hence also Wellhausen says (Prolegomena6, 317): “Only Abraham is certainly no name of a people, like Isaac and Lot; he is rather ambiguous anyway. We dare not of course on that account hold him in this connection as an historical personage; rather than that he might be a free creation of unconscious fiction. He is probably the youngest figure in this company and appears to have been only at a relatively late date put before his son Isaac.”
3. The Mythical Theory
Urged popularly by Nöldeke (Im neuen Reich (1871), I, 508ff) and taken up by other scholars, especially in the case of Abraham, the view gained general currency among those who denied the historicity of Genesis, that the patriarchs were old deities. From this relatively high estate, it was held, they had fallen to the plane of mere mortals (though with remnants of the hero or even demigod here and there visible) on which they appear in Genesis. A new phase of this mythical theory has been developed in the elaboration by Winckler and others of their astral-theology of the Babylonian world, in which the worship of Abraham as the moon-god by the Semites of Palestine plays a part. Abraham's traditional origin connects him with Ur and Haran, leading centers of the moon-cult. Apart from this fact the arguments relied upon to establish this identification of Abraham with Sin may be judged by the following samples: “When further the consort of Abraham bears the name Sarah, and one of the women among his closest relations the name Milcah, this gives food for thought, since these names correspond precisely with the titles of the female deities worshipped at Haran alongside the moongod Sin. Above all, however, the number 318, that appears in Genesis 14:14 in connection with the figure of Abraham, is convincing because this number, which surely has no historical value, can only be satisfactorily explained from the circle of ideas of the moon-religion, since in the lunar year of 354 days there are just 318 days on which the moon is visible - deducting 36 days, or three for each of the twelve months, on which the moon is invisible” (Baentsch, Monotheismus, 60f). In spite of this assurance, however, nothing could exceed the scorn with which these combinations and conjectures of Winckler, A. Jeremias and others of this school are received by those who in fact differ from them with respect to Abraham in little save the answer to the question, what deity was Abraham (see e.g. Meyer, op. cit., 252f, 256f).
4. The “Saga” Theory
Gunkel (Genesis, Introduction), in insisting upon the resemblance of the patriarchal narrative to the “sagas” of other primitive peoples, draws attention both to the human traits of figures like Abraham, and to the very early origin of the material embodied in our present book of Genesis. First as stories orally circulated, then as stories committed to writing, and finally as a number of collections or groups of such stories formed into a cycle, the Abraham-narratives, like the Jacob-narratives and the Joseph-narratives , grew through a long and complex literary history. Gressmann (op. cit, 9-34) amends Gunkel's results, in applying to them the principles of primitive literary development laid down by Professor Wundt in his Völkerpsychologie. He holds that the kernel of the Abraham-narratives is a series of fairy-stories, of international diffusion and unknown origin, which have been given “a local habitation and a name” by attaching to them the (ex hypothesi) then common name of Abraham (similarly Lot, etc.) and associating them with the country nearest to the wilderness of Judea, the home of their authors, namely, about Hebron and the Dead Sea. A high antiquity (1300-1100 BC) is asserted for these stories, their astonishing accuracy in details wherever they can be tested by extra-Biblical tradition is conceded, as also the probability that, “though many riddles still remain unsolved, yet many other traditions will be cleared up by new discoveries” of archaeology.