ABRAHAM , or, in Hebrew, Avraham; the ancestor of the Hebrews through the line of Isaac and Jacob and of the Arabs through Ishmael.
Abraham in the World of the Near East
The ancestors of Israel are portrayed in the Bible as living a nomadic or pastoral life among the older population of Palestine before the time of the Israelite settlement (c. thirteenth century bce). With the great increase in knowledge about the ancient Near East during the past century, scholars have attempted to fit Abraham and his family into the background of Near Eastern culture in the second millennium bce. Comparisons are made with the personal names of the ancestors; the names of peoples and places; social customs having to do with marriage, childbearing, and inheritance rights; and types of nomadism in the various stories in order to establish the background and social milieu out of which the ancestors came. The effort to place the patriarchs in the second millennium bce has been unsuccessful, however, because all of the features in the stories can be attested to in sources of the first millennium bce, and some of the items in the stories, such as the domestication of the camel or reference to Philistines, Arameans, and Arabs, belong to a much later time. The special effort to fit the war between Abraham and the kings of the east (Gn. 14) into the history of the second millennium by trying to identify the various kings and nations involved has failed to yield plausible proposals. The four eastern kingdoms, Elam, Babylonia, Assyria, and that of the Hittites, referred to cryptically in this text, never formed an alliance, nor did they ever control Palestine either collectively or individually during the second millennium bce. The whole account is historically impossible, and the story is very likely a late addition to Genesis.
Abraham and Tradition-History
Another method of approaching the Abraham stories is through tradition-history, which attempts to identify the individual stories as legends ("sagas") and to regard them as separate units of tradition with their original setting in the nomadic life of the tribes during their earliest contacts with the indigenous population. The common concern of a number of the stories is the quest for land and progeny, which reflects the urge of the land-hungry nomads to gain a foothold in the land where they had temporary pasturage. The stories thus portray a process of gradual peaceful settlement by separate groups, each represented by a different patriarch. The combination of the traditions reflects the subsequent amalgamation of the groups with their traditions, which led to the creation of the genealogical chain of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This whole process of tradition development is viewed as taking place at the oral tradition stage, before it reached the written form.
This approach has not gone unchallenged (Van Seters, 1975). The degree to which the stories of Abraham reflect a long process of oral tradition is debatable. For instance, the tradition of Beersheba as a cult place cannot belong to the premonarchy period because the excavations carried out under the direction of Yohanan Aharoni show that the city was a new foundation of the Judean monarchy. While some of the individual stories may reflect traditions of varying degrees of antiquity, the process of collecting and arranging the stories is still best explained as reflecting literary activity.
Religion of Abraham
The traditio-historical approach to the patriarchal stories has led to the view that the tradition reflects a nomadic form of personal religion in which the "god of the fathers" is the patron god of the clan. He is associated with a specific person, such as Abraham, who experiences a theophany and receives the divine promises of land and progeny. Also belonging to this "primitive" level of Israelite religion are the references to sacred trees and stones and the setting up of numerous altars. The frequent references to El in the patriarchal stories reflect either the encounter of the nomadic religion with the Canaanite religion of the land, with its high god El, or the original identity of the "god of the fathers."
The problem with these reconstructions of Israel's early religion is that the emphasis upon Yahveh as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the identifying of Yahveh with El are attested only in exilic sources. Furthermore, the themes of the divine promise of land and numerous progeny cannot be shown in a single instance to belong to the oral stage of the tradition's development. One must conclude therefore that the religion of Abraham is the religion of the authors of the present form of the tradition.
Abraham in the Written Sources
Scholars have long recognized that the story of Abraham is not a unity but combines the works of more than one author. The literary analysis of the Pentateuch, established by Julius Wellhausen and others in the nineteenth century, recognizes three independent sources. The earliest of these, the Yahvist (J), is dated to the united monarchy (c. 950 bce) and is viewed as using the Abraham tradition to support the claims of the Davidic empire. The Elohist (E) in Genesis 20–22 is dated to the time of the prophets (c. eighth century bce). The Priestly (P) source is of postexilic date (c. 400 bce) and is found only in the episodes of Genesis 17 and 23 and in a few chronological notices.
While this literary analysis has long held sway, some scholars have begun to dispute the dates given to the sources and to understand their relationship to each other in quite a different way. In this view some of the early J stories (Gn. 12:10–20, 16, 18:1, 18:10–14, 21:2, 21:6–7) and the so-called E source were used by the J author along with his own material to shape the biblical story of Abraham as a major national tradition in the exilic period. The P writer made a few additions to this tradition in the postexilic period, while the story about the kings of the east in Genesis 14 was the latest addition in the Hellenistic period.
The Abraham Tradition in Genesis
A distinctive feature of the Abraham tradition is that it contains a number of short stories that are not linked in a continuous narrative. This has fostered the view that they reflect a stage of oral tradition before their collection into a literary work. Furthermore, the fact that a number of stories appear as doublets has suggested that tradition variants found their way into separate literary sources. The doublets, however, are actually carefully composed literary modifications of the earlier stories meant to put forward the author's own point of view and religious concerns.
The twice-told tales
There are two stories about how the patriarch's wife was passed off as his sister in order to protect himself in a foreign land. The first one (Gn. 12:10–20) is simply an entertaining folktale whereby Abraham appears to outsmart the Egyptians and come away with both wealth and wife. The second version (chap. 20) seeks to exonerate the patriarch of any moral wrongdoing. Abraham did not lie, because Sarah actually was his half sister, and God was not unjust in his treatment of the king but actually recognized his innocence and provided him with a way out of his dilemma. The whole matter is resolved amicably. Yet a third version of the story is found in the Isaac tradition (26:1–11), which makes use of elements from both of the earlier stories but with the emphasis here on God's guidance and providence. The account of Hagar's flight (chap. 16) and her later expulsion with Ishmael (21:8–21) are also doublets. The first is an ethnographic etiology on the origin and nature of the Ishmaelites, while the second transforms this theme into an aspect of the divine promises to Abraham, since Ishmael is also his offspring.
In none of these cases does the later version constitute an independent variant of the tradition. Instead, it is an attempt by a later author to modify the way one understands the earlier story in terms of a later attitude on morals and piety, as in the case of Genesis 20, or a later use of the Abraham tradition to emphasize ethnic identity and destiny.
Abraham and Lot
The inclusion of Lot in the Abraham tradition affords a contrast between the forefather of the Ammonites and the Moabites and the forefather of the Hebrews. When they go their separate ways (Gn. 13), Lot appears to gain the better territory by his choice of the fertile valley in the region of Sodom, while Abraham is left with the land of Canaan. But this merely anticipates the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (chaps. 18–19) and Lot's ultimate location in the eastern highlands.
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah follows a familiar classical theme, as in the story of Baucis and Philemon (Ovid, Metamorphoses 8.616ff.), in which the gods send emissaries in the guise of strangers to investigate violence and corruption on earth. The strangers are ill treated by the population, except for an old couple who offer them hospitality and are rewarded while the rest of the population is destroyed. In the Bible, Abraham's hospitality is rewarded by the promise of Isaac's birth (18:1–15). Lot also entertains the two angels and protects them from the cities' inhabitants, who try to abuse them. This leads to the judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, but Lot and his family are rescued, except for Lot's wife, who looks back and becomes a pillar of salt. The story also serves as the context for a discussion of the possible fate of the righteous along with sinners when God makes a judgment upon the wicked (18:16–33).
Abraham and Isaac
The account of Isaac's birth (Gn. 18:1, 18:10–14, 21:2, 21:6–7) was originally told as a single story quite separate from the story of Sodom and Gomorrah with which it is now combined. It emphasized the wonder of the birth of the child to the aged couple and played upon the meaning of Isaac's name, "laughter." The ʿaqedah, or "binding," of Isaac (chap. 22) became very important in the later development of the tradition. The frequent suggestion that the story arose as a protest against child sacrifice is speculative and has little support in the present text. The author makes clear at the outset that the command to sacrifice Isaac is a divine testing. While the sacrifice is stayed by divine intervention and a ram substituted in Isaac's place, Abraham's obedience is commended and the divine promises renewed. The matchmaking of chapter 24 recounts how Abraham sent his servant to Harran, the land of his kinsmen, to find a wife for Isaac, and how through divine guidance the servant was led to the house of Rebecca. The story stresses the providence of God in the destiny of Abraham's descendants. It also raises the theme of ethnic purity—a matter of some concern in the exilic period.
Covenant of Abraham
The Yahvist who brought together the diverse elements of the Abraham tradition created a sense of unity in the collection by means of the themes of the divine promises of numerous progeny and the gift of the land of Canaan. J begins with God's call to Abraham to leave his homeland for a new land and his promise of nationhood and divine blessing (Gn. 12:1–3). As soon as Abraham reaches the land of Canaan, God gives it to him as an inheritance (12:7). The promises are again repeated after Abraham's separation from Lot (13:14–17). The promise theme reaches its climax in chapter 15, in which God assures Abraham again of numerous descendants and makes a covenant with him according to which he gives him the region from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates. Thereafter the promises are again mentioned in a number of other stories about Abraham (16:10, 18:18, 21:13, 21:18, 22:15–18, 24:7) as well as in those of Isaac and Jacob. Unlike the covenant of Sinai, the Abrahamic covenant is not conditioned by law since the promises have already been guaranteed by Abraham's obedience (22:15–18, 26:3–5).
The Priestly writer's treatment of the covenant (chap. 17) builds directly upon J's version but introduces a number of modifications. First, God appears to Abraham as El Shaddai (17:1) instead of as Yahveh (15:7). This change is explained by P in Exodus 6:2–3 in the suggestion that the patriarchs knew God only by the name El Shaddai, whereas the name Yahveh was first revealed to Moses. Second, the writer marks the covenant by a change of names from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah and modifies the tradition accordingly. Third, the covenant with its promises includes the sign of circumcision. Only through this rite may Israelites of a later day be participants in the destiny of the covenant community. This is an ecclesial conception of identity most appropriate to those living in the Diaspora communities.
Burial of Sarah
In the account of Sarah's burial in chapter 23 (P), Abraham is portrayed as striking a bargain with the inhabitants of Hebron to purchase a piece of land and a cave in which to bury his wife. This becomes the special burial site for Abraham himself and for most of the other patriarchs. What is remarkable about the account is its lack of any religious treatment of the burial or of any reference to the deity in the story. The author's intention may have been to frustrate any ancestral veneration by such a "secular" account, but if so, it was not successful since the supposed location of the burial site in Hebron is regarded as a holy place by Jews, Christians, and Muslims down to the present day.
Abraham in Other Books of the Bible
In the Pentateuch and the historical books mention is made of the promises to the patriarchs as the basis for God's mercy toward Israel in his rescue of the people from Egypt, in his forgiveness of their disobedience in the wilderness, in his gift to them of the land of Canaan, and finally in his rescue of Israel from Aramean domination. Abraham is not mentioned in preexilic prophecy. It is only with the crisis of the exile that the figure of Abraham becomes a paradigm of hope for the restoration of nationhood and Israel's return to the land of its forefathers. It is especially in "Second Isaiah" (Is. 41:8–10, 51:1–2) that Abraham is the focus of Israelite identity and destiny. So too in the exilic Psalm 105 Israel's identity is based upon the election and covenant of Abraham. The Sinai covenant is passed over in silence.
Abraham in Postbiblical Judaism
One use of the Abraham tradition in postbiblical times can be seen in the anti-Hellenistic work of the Maccabean period known as Jubilees, or the Little Genesis (chaps. 12–23). There Abraham becomes the model of appropriate Jewish piety. The book tells how Abraham, while still in Chaldea, came to a knowledge of the true God, learned the divine language of Hebrew, and repudiated the idolatry of his native land. After receiving the divine call he went to the land of Canaan. One significant amplification of the biblical tradition of Abraham is the emphasis on Abraham's observance of many of the Mosaic laws and of his giving instruction in these laws to Isaac his son and even to his grandson Jacob. Special emphasis is also given to the covenant of Abraham as the covenant of circumcision and a warning to those Jews who neglect this practice (see 15:9–14, 15:25–34, 16:14). The theme of Abraham's testing by God is more nearly paralleled to that of Job by including in the Abraham story the figure of Mastema (Satan), who becomes responsible for instigating the trials. Abraham endures ten trials, the climax of which is the divine command to sacrifice Isaac (17:15–18, 18:1–13; see also Avot 5.3, Judith 8:25f.).
Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian of Roman times who was writing for a Gentile audience, presents Abraham in a much more apologetic tone—as a pious philosopher of great learning (Jewish Antiquities 1.7–17). He states that Abraham was the first to reason to a knowledge of God, creator of the universe, by his observations of the heavens. Abraham was, however, forced to leave Babylonia because of religious persecution (see also Judith 5:8). He took with him the Babylonian sciences of astronomy and mathematics, which he taught to the Egyptians during his sojourn in their country, and in this way the knowledge of such sciences eventually came to the Greeks. (See also the Hellenistic-Jewish fragments in Eusebius's Praeparatio evangelica, 9.17ff., where Abraham teaches the Phoenicians as well.) Josephus places little emphasis upon the distinctively Jewish features of the Abraham tradition. He even passes rather lightly over the episode of his circumcision and defers to another place a discussion of the law of circumcision.
Philo Judaeus of Alexandria devotes two treatises to Abraham: On Abraham, part of his Exposition of the Law (directed to Gentiles), and On the Migration of Abraham, part of his Allegory of the Jewish Law (directed to Jewish readers). The first work is primarily a Hellenistic biography to demonstrate Abraham's piety and wisdom and the Greek virtues of justice, courage, and moderation, to which, in place of prudence, the author adds faith. Abraham also observes the law, not, however, the Law of Moses (as in Jubilees ) but the law of nature. The life of Abraham is further interpreted allegorically, especially in the second work, as the mystical journey of the sage who reaches perfection through education. From Chaldean idolatry, astrology, and sense perception the soul progresses through reason and philosophy to a knowledge of God. The outlook here is a form of moral and mystical Greek philosophy.
The rabbinic aggadah on Abraham is well represented by the midrash Genesis Rabbah, 39–62. For the rabbis, also, Abraham was the first man to recognize the existence of God while in Chaldea amongst the idolatry there. Abraham's call to go to an unknown land was the beginning of his trials of faith, of which the binding of Isaac was the climax and by which his rewards, blessing, and merit on behalf of others would be all the greater. The rabbinic tradition is very insistent that Abraham kept all the Mosaic commandments, both the written and unwritten law (see also B.T., Yoma' 28b; B.T., Qiddushin 82a; Midrash Tehillim 112; Numbers Rabbah 12). Abraham is also viewed as a prophet, primarily in the sense that he received revelations from God about the future and the unseen world. And Abraham is a priest whose priesthood is somehow linked with that of Melchizedek and whose sacrifice on Mount Moriah was at the site of the future Temple.
Abraham in Christianity
The figure of Abraham plays a special role in the New Testament, especially in the thought of the apostle Paul. In Romans 4 Paul argues that Abraham was justified by faith in God prior to his being circumcised and therefore prior to any works of the law, so the law is not necessary for justification—that is, for being considered righteous before God. Abraham becomes the father of the faithful, and the election of Abraham is thus extended to all who have faith. Nevertheless, Paul is not willing to give up God's special election of the Jews and so argues for their ultimate salvation as well. In Galatians 3:6–9 and 3:15–18 Paul uses a somewhat different argument by suggesting that salvation came to the Gentiles through Abraham's blessing; this blessing was transmitted through Abraham's "seed," which Paul identifies with Jesus.
The Letter to the Hebrews (11:8–12, 11:17–19) uses Abraham as an example of faith, recounting his response to God's call to sojourn in the land of promise, his belief with Sarah in the promise of offspring, and his testing through the sacrifice of Isaac. All of these are made to reflect faith in God beyond the limitations of this life, a heavenly abode, and the belief in future resurrection of the dead. By contrast, James 2:20–24 uses the sacrifice of Isaac as an example of Abraham's being justified by works and not just by faith alone.
Abraham in Islam
Abraham is mentioned more frequently in the Qurʾān than is any other biblical figure. He is regarded as the first prophet because he was the first to convert to the true God and to preach against the idolatry of his people (sūrahs 19:41ff., 21:51ff., 26:69ff., 37:83ff.). He was also the first Muslim because he practiced islam —submission to absolute obedience to God—when he was tested by the command to sacrifice his son (2:124ff., 37:102ff.). Abraham, with the aid of his son Ishmael, the father of the Arabs, was responsible for the founding of the Kaʿbah in Mecca, the first sanctuary of God (2:125, 2:127). Muḥammad viewed himself as the reviver of this ancient faith, which he regarded as older than both Judaism and Christianity (3:65). Following Jewish tradition, he also regarded Abraham as the first recipient of the divine revelation of the book (2:129).
It is difficult in a brief bibliography to do justice to the broad spectrum of scholarly opinion about the Abraham tradition. On matters of the history of the patriarchal age, John Bright's A History of Israel, 3d ed. (Philadelphia, 1981), may be said to represent an American school of thought, while Siegfried Herrmann's Geschichte Israels in alttestamentlicher Zeit (Munich, 1973), translated by John Bowden as A History of Israel in Old Testament Times, 2d ed. (Philadelphia, 1981), presents an approach favored by many German biblical scholars. A mediating position is that found in Roland de Vaux's Histoire ancienne d'Israël: Des origines à l'installation en Canaan (Paris, 1971), translated by David Smith as The Early History of Israel (Philadelphia, 1978).
On the religion of Abraham, see Albrecht Alt's Der Gott der Väter: Ein Beitrag zur Vorgeschichte der Israelitischen Religion (Stuttgart, 1929), translated by R. A. Wilson as "The God of the Fathers," in Essays on Old Testament History and Religion (Oxford, 1966), pp. 1–77; and Frank Moore Cross's Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge, Mass., 1973), pp. 3–75.
On the literary development of the tradition, see Hermann Gunkel's Genesis (Göttingen, 1901). The introduction to this work was translated and edited by William H. Carruth as The Legends of Genesis (Chicago, 1901) and reissued with an introduction by William F. Albright (New York, 1964). See also the commentary in Gerhard von Rad's Das erste Buch Mose, Genesis, 3 vols. (Göttingen, 1949–1953), translated by John H. Marks as Genesis: A Commentary, 3 vols. (Philadelphia, 1961). A commentary that reflects the American school is the one in Nahum M. Sarna's Understanding Genesis (New York, 1966).
Critical reappraisals of the historicity of the Abraham tradition can be found in Thomas L. Thompson's The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham (New York, 1974), and in my Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven, Conn., 1975). The latter work also contains a critical discussion of the literary tradition of Abraham.
Recent surveys of the present state of scholarship on Abraham are represented by William G. Denver and W. Malcolm Clark in "The Patriarchal Traditions," chapter 2 of Israelite and Judaean History, edited by John H. Hayes and J. Maxwell Miller (Philadelphia, 1977), pp. 70–148; and Claus Westermann's Genesis, pt. 2, "Biblischer Kommentar Altes Testament," vol. 1, no. 2 (Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1981). This latter work contains an extensive bibliography.
For a treatment of Abraham in later Jewish sources, see Samuel Sandmel's Philo's Place in Judaism: A Study of Conceptions of Abraham in Jewish Literature (Cincinnati, 1955). See also the article "Abraham" in Theologische Realenzyklopädie, vol. 1 (New York, 1977).
Brodsky, Harold. "Did Abram Wage a Just War?" Jewish Bible Quarterly 31 (2003): 167–173.
Cohen, Jeffrey M. "Displacement in the Matriarchal Home: A Psychological Study of the Abraham-Sarah Marriage." Jewish Bible Quarterly 30 (2002): 90–96.
Fleishman, Joseph. "On the Significance of a Name Change and Circumcision in Genesis 17." Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 28 (2002): 19–32.
Kahn, Pinchas. "The Mission of Abraham: Genesis 18:17–22:19." Jewish Bible Quarterly 30 (2002): 155–163.
Kaltner, John. "Abraham's Sons: How the Bible and Qurʾan See the Same Story Differently." Bible Review 18 (2002): 16–23, 45–46.
Lee, Jung H. "Abraham in a Different Voice: Rereading 'Fear and Trembling' with Care." Religious Studies 36 (2000): 377–400.
Levenson, Jon Douglas. "The Conversion of Abraham to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam." In The Idea of Biblical Interpretation, edited by Hindy Najman and Judith H. Newman, pp. 3–40. Leiden and Boston, 2004.
Noegel, Scott B. "Abraham's Ten Trials and a Biblical Numerical Convention." Jewish Bible Quarterly 31 (2003): 73–83.
John Van Seters (1987)
ABRAHAM (originally Abram ; Heb. אַבְרָהָם, אַבְרָם), first patriarch of the people of Israel. The form "Abram" occurs in the Bible only in Genesis 11:26–17:5, Nehemiah 9:7, and i Chronicles 1:26. Otherwise, "Abraham" appears invariably, and the name is borne by no one else. No certain extra-biblical parallel exists. A-ba-am-ra-ma, A-ba-ra-ma, A-ba-am-ra-am occur in 19th-century b.c.e. Akkadian cuneiform texts. Abrm appears in Ugaritic (Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (1965), pp. 286, 348, text 2095, line 4), but is most likely to be read A-bi-ra-mì (Palais Royal d' Ugarit, 3 (1955), p.20, text 15.63, line 1). There is no evidence that Abram is a shortened form of Abiram. As to the meaning of Abram, the first element is undoubtedly the common Semitic for "father"; the second could be derived from Akkadian ra'âmu ("to love") or from West-Semitic rwm ("to be high"). "He loved the father" or "father loves" is a far less likely meaning than "he is exalted with respect to father" i.e., he is of distinguished lineage. The meaning "exalted father" or "father is exalted," while less satisfactory, cannot be ruled out. No Hebrew derivation for Abraham exists. In Genesis 17:5 "the father of a multitude [of nations]" is a popular etymology, although it might possibly conceal an obsolete Hebrew cognate of Arabic ruhâm, "numerous." More likely, Abraham is a mere dialectic variant of Abram, representing the insertion of h in weak verbal stems, a phenomenon known from Aramaic and elsewhere.
The Biblical Data: Genesis 11:26–25:10
The main details of Abraham's life are recorded in Genesis 11:26–25:10. They do not form a continuous narrative but refer to a series of isolated incidents. Son of *Terah, Abraham was the tenth generation from Noah through the line of Shem (Gen. 11:10–26). His two brothers were Nahor and Haran. His wife was Sarai or *Sarah, a paternal half sister (11:29; 20:12). The family migrated from "Ur of the Chaldees" (11:31), the apparent birthplace of Abraham (11:28; 15:7; Neh. 9:7; cf. Josh. 24:2–3), heading for Canaan. It was during the stay at Haran that Abram, then aged 75, received the divine call and promise of nationhood in response to which he proceeded to Canaan together with his wife and nephew *Lot (Gen. 12:1–5). At Shechem he received a further promise of national territory and built an altar before continuing his wanderings in the region between Beth-El and Ai. In this area, too, he built an altar and invoked the divine name, thereafter journeying toward the Negev (12:6–9). (See Map: Abraham's Journeys.)
Driven by famine to Egypt, the patriarch represented his wife as his sister in order to avert personal danger. Sarah was taken to Pharaoh's palace, but released when the deception was uncovered as a result of divine visitations (12:10–20). Abraham returned to Canaan and resumed his peregrinations. At this time, Lot left the clan because of quarrels over pasture-lands and departed (13:5–9). This incident was followed by a reiteration of the divine promises of nationhood and possession of the land (13:14–17). Abraham again built an altar, this time in Hebron (13:18). Abraham "the Hebrew" next appears in the role of military chief, described in terms of the ideal "noble warrior," leading a force of 318 retainers against an invading coalition of eastern kings who had captured Lot in plundering *Sodom and Gomorrah. The patriarch rescued his nephew and restored the booty. On his return he was blessed by *Melchizedek, priest-king of Salem, to whom he paid tithes. He refused, however, the offer by the king of Sodom of a share in the recovered spoils (ch. 14). Once again, Abraham received
confirmation of the divine promises, now sealed through an elaborate covenant ceremony (ch. 15).
Ten years had now elapsed since the first promise of abundant offspring, but Sarah remained childless. She therefore presented her maidservant *Hagar to her husband as a second wife. *Ishmael was born of the union, Abraham being then 86 years old (16:1 ff.). The Bible is silent about the next 13 years. Then Scripture reports that God reaffirmed and strengthened the promise of a rich posterity. Abraham and Sarah were to beget "a multitude of nations" and kings would issue from them (17:1–8). It is at this point that their names were changed from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah, respectively (17:5, 15). In addition, the institution of *circumcision was ordained as an ineradicable token of the immutability of God's covenant with Abraham and his posterity (17:9–14). Sarah was explicitly promised a son to be called *Isaac, through whom the covenant would be maintained (17:16–19, 21). Abraham then performed circumcision on himself and on Ishmael, as well as upon all males in his household (17:23–27).
Alongside the terebinths of Mamre three messengers appeared to the patriarch who entertained them hospitably and learned from them of the impending birth of his son and heir (18:1–10). Sarah was amused by these tidings as had been Abraham earlier (18:12; cf. 17:17), but the Lord Himself confirmed their truth (18:14). He also revealed His decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham pleaded for revocation of the sentence for the sake of an innocent nucleus that might be found therein. None such could apparently be found, although Lot was saved from the subsequent destruction through the merit of Abraham (18:16–19:29). The patriarch journeyed to the Negev area and settled between Kadesh and Shur. While in Gerar, he again passed off his wife as his sister. King *Abimelech took Sarah into his palace, but released her unharmed after being rebuked in a dream theophany (ch. 20). The time of fulfillment of the divine promise was now at hand. Sarah, aged 90 (17:17), bore the 100-year-old Abraham a son who was named Isaac (21:1–3, 5). This event, however, proved to be a cause of domestic disharmony. Sarah demanded the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. It was only divine intervention in favor of Sarah that persuaded the distressed Abraham to agree (21:9–21). At this time, at Abimelech's initiative, the patriarch concluded a pact of non-aggression, which also regulated the watering rights in the Beer-Sheba area. He subsequently spent considerable time in the land of the Philistines (21:22–34).
The climax of Abraham's life was the divine command to sacrifice Isaac in the land of Moriah (see *Akedah). Abraham obeyed unhesitatingly and his hand was stayed only at the last moment by an angel. Having passed the supreme test of faith, the patriarch now received, for the last time, the divine blessing – the promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; they would seize the gates of their foes; all the nations of the earth would bless themselves by his progeny (22:1–19). Abraham's subsequent acts were concerned with winding up his affairs. The death of Sarah in Kiriath-Arba (Hebron) was the occasion for acquiring the cave of *Machpelah, as a family sepulcher, from Ephron the Hittite (ch. 23). Then, Abraham commissioned his senior servant to travel to Haran to find a wife for Isaac, the idea of a local Canaanite daughter-in-law being thoroughly repugnant to him (ch. 24). After Isaac's marriage to Rebekah, Abraham himself remarried. Several children were born of this marriage to Keturah, like Isaac and Ishmael the eponyms of nations. Thus was fulfilled the promise (Gen 17:4) that Abraham would be the father of many nations. However, he willed all his possessions to Isaac, gave his other sons gifts and sent them away to the land of the East. Abraham died at the age of 175 and was buried in the cave of Machpelah by Isaac and Ishmael (25:1–11).
The Biblical Data: In the Rest of the Bible
Mention of Abraham in the rest of the Bible is overwhelmingly in connection with the divine promises, and usually there is simultaneous reference to all three patriarchs. The few points of contact with the Abrahamic biography are mainly confined to the Book of Genesis (26:1; 35:27; 49:31), though the exodus from Ur and the change of name are mentioned in the late books (Neh. 9:7; cf. Josh. 24:2–3; i Chron. 1:26). A cryptic reference to Abraham's idolatrous ancestry is to be found in Joshua 24:2, while Isaiah (29:22) seems to cite some widely known tradition not otherwise recorded in the Bible. Abraham is called God's "servant" (Gen. 26:24; Ps. 105:6, 42) and "friend" (Isa. 41:8; ii Chron. 20:7), and though the patriarch is not an ethnographic figure, Israel is called "the offspring of Abraham" (Isa. 41:8; Jer. 33:26; Ps. 105:6; ii Chron. 20:7) and "the people of the God of Abraham" (Ps. 47:10). Surprisingly, "God of Abraham" as a generalized divine epithet appears only this once. Otherwise, Abraham is invariably associated with the other patriarchs in divine appellations.
The Image of Abraham
The picture that emerges from the biblical texts suggests a wealthy head of a large establishment, a semi-nomadic tent dweller (Gen. 12:8; et al.), whose peregrinations are confined mainly to the central hill country of Palestine and the Negev and who clings to the periphery of a few great urban centers. He possesses flocks, silver and gold, slaves (ibid. 12:5, 16, et al.), and a private army (14:14). He makes military alliances (14:13), has dealings with kings (12:15 ff.; 14:18 ff.; 17:22 ff.; 21:22–32), and negotiates the purchase of land with city notables (23:2–20). Abraham is peace loving (13:8–9), magnanimous and principled in victory (14:22 ff.), hospitable to strangers (18:1 ff.), concerned for his fellowmen (18:23–33), obedient to God and his laws (26:5), and committed to transmitting to his posterity the ideals of justice and righteousness that he espouses (18:19). He is the very symbol of the God-fearing man (22:12) and the man of supreme faith (15:6; 22; Neh. 9:8). He is privy to divine decisions (Gen. 18:17; cf. Amos 3:7) and is also termed "a prophet" (Gen. 20:7) in that he can intercede with God on another's behalf (cf. Deut. 9:20; Jer. 7:16).
The Critical View
The disconnected and fragmentary nature of the narrative, as well as stylistic considerations, seem to point to a composition based on various oral traditions and written sources. Among followers of the documentary theory, there is a broad measure of agreement in respect of source division among je and p, but little consensus as to the age and historic value of the material used by these sources. No external records have been found as yet that refer by name to Abraham or to any personage directly connected with him. In the absence of such synchronistic controls, and in the light of the difficulties of the biblical chronological data (see *Chronology), the place of the patriarch in the framework of history cannot be precisely determined. The attempts in the mid-20th century to marshal sociological and onomastic evidence from archeological discoveries at Nuzi, Mari, and elsewhere to provide a historical setting for Abraham in the second millennium b.c.e. have not withstood the test of time. Most alleged parallels between the Abrahamic stories have been shown to be faulty (e.g., wife-sister marriage), or not to be confined to a specific period in the second millennium (e.g., surrogate motherhood). Contemporary scholarship tends to see Abraham as a fictitious symbolic model of faith, as a figure who legitimates the claims of Israel to its land, and whose actions foreshadow the deeds of his children. Some of the tales of Abraham foreshadow the actions of Israelite kings, notably David (see *Patriarchs).
Whatever the age and source of the individual units, it is quite clear that in its present form the cycle of Abrahamic traditions is a unified and symmetrical historiographic composition. These traditions are encased within a framework of genealogies – the first listing the patriarch's ancestors (Gen. 11:10–32) and the second his descendants (25:1–18). The action opens and closes in a Mesopotamian setting (12:1–4; 24:4 ff.). The first utterance of Abraham to God is an expression of doubt (15:2–8); his last is one of supreme confidence in the workings of divine providence (24:7). Finally, both the first and last communications from God to Abraham involve agonizing decisions and tests of faith, and they are cast in a strikingly similar literary mold: almost identical language is used in the case of both calls (12:1; 22:2); the exact destination is withheld in both cases; the motif of father parting with son is shared by each narrative; the tension of the drama is heightened by the accumulation of descriptive epithets (ibid.); in each instance Abraham builds an altar (12:8; 22:9); and in each he receives divine blessings of similar content (12:2–3; 22:17–18).
[Nahum M. Sarna /
S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]
In the Aggadah
In aggadic literature Abraham is regarded as having observed all the commandments (Yoma 28b; Kid. 4:14; et al.) even though they had not yet been revealed. He acted in strict conformity with the Oral Law: "No one occupied himself so much with the divine commandments as did Abraham" (Ned. 32a). He even muzzled his animals that they should not graze in the fields of others (Gen. R. 41:6). Abraham instituted the morning prayer (Ber. 26b), and the precepts of the *ẓiẓit and *tefillin originate from him (Mid. Hag. to Gen. 14:23). These statements probably constitute a polemic against Christian *antinomianism which was prevalent toward the end of the first century c.e. and which later maintained that the commandments of the Torah were a punishment inflicted upon Israel. Abraham's principal virtue was that he was the first to recognize God, which is variously stated to have taken place when he was one, three, ten, or 48 years old (Gen. R. 95:2; 64:4). His recognition of God sprang from the notion that every citadel must have a leader (ibid. 39:1). Abraham waged a strenuous battle in the cause of spreading the idea of monotheism and won over many converts. When he smashed the idols of his father, an idol manufacturer, King *Nimrod had him thrown into a fiery furnace from which he was delivered by the angel Gabriel (Pes. 118a).
Abraham became a priest (Gen. R. 55:6), after the priest-hood was taken from Melchizedek and given to him (Ned. 32b; Gen. R. 46:5; et al.). He was one of the great prophets, with whom God spoke not in dreams or visions but while he was in full possession of his normal cognitive faculties. "God omitted no blessing in the world with which He did not bless him" (ser 6). Through coins bearing his image Abraham's fame spread (Gen. R. 39:11). Around his neck was hung a precious stone which brought masses flocking to him, for whoever looked on it was healed (bb 16b, et al.). He was granted the privilege of blessing others (Tanḥ. Lekh Lekha 5), and his blessing spread upon all who came into contact with him (Gen. R. 39:12). Renowned for his hospitality to strangers, he had open doors to his house on all four sides (Gen. R. 48:9) and himself waited on his guests, and taught them the Grace after Meals, thus bringing them to believe in God (ibid. 54:6). Because of his proselytizing activities, he is regarded as the father of all proselytes, who are given the patronymic Abraham.
Abraham was circumcised on the Day of Atonement by Shem the son of Noah, "and every year the Holy One, blessed be He, looks upon the blood of the covenant of our patriarch Abraham's circumcision and forgives all our sins" (pdre 29). Circumcision was one of the ten trials wherewith Abraham was tried (see later) and by virtue of it he sits at the gate of hell and does not permit the circumcised to enter (Gen. R. 48:8). The phrase, "entry into the covenant of Abraham our father," used to this day for the ceremony of circumcision, is already found in the Damascus Document 12:11 (ed. Ch. Rabin, Zadokite Documents (19582), 60–61). According to an early tradition Abraham underwent ten trials (Avot 5:3) of which different lists are given in the Midrashim (arn 33:2; Mid. Ps. to 18:25; 98; pdre 26). In answer to the sectarians who sought thus to prove the weakness of Abraham's faith, the sages emphasized that it is only the righteous, who are certain to pass the test, who are tried (Gen. R. 55:1–2). "Lovingkindness is spread abroad" (Gen. R. 60:2) and the world and all therein are preserved because of Abraham's merit. The manna (Tanḥ. Buber, Ex. 34), victory in war (Gen. R. 39:16; Esth. R. 7:13), and general forgiveness of Israel's sins (Song R. 4:6) are ascribed to his merit. The dramatic description of Abraham's appeal to save the people of Sodom (Gen. 18:23–33) is given a new dimension in the Midrash, which compares his arguments with God to those of Job (Gen. R. 49:9). According to this Abraham employed a "cleaner" language than did Job (ibid.).
In this connection the Midrash emphasizes the extreme contrast between the basic hospitality of Abraham and the spurious "hospitality" of the people of Sodom (Ag. Ber. 25). It is of interest to note that the Akedah is regarded as more of a trial of Abraham than of Isaac. In a desire to compare the trial of Abraham with that of Job, the aggadah assigns to Satan a role in the drama of Abraham as well (Sanh. 89b). The disciples of Abraham have "a benign eye, a humble spirit and a lowly soul" (Avot 5:19). Abraham however is not regarded as beyond criticism. The Talmud states that "Abraham our father was punished and his descendants enslaved in Egypt" because he pressed scholars into military service (based on Gen. 14:14), went too far in testing God, and prevented men from "entering beneath the wings of the Divine Presence" (based on Gen. 14:21; Ned. 32a). Moreover, Abraham hesitated to circumcise himself, whereupon Mamre rebuked and encouraged him (Gen. R. 42:8). In a biting comment, Rava denied Abraham the right to intercede on behalf of his people: In time to come Israel will ask of God: "To whom shall we go – to Abraham to whom Thou didst say, 'Know of a surety that thy seed be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them…' and yet he did not plead for mercy for us?" (Shab. 89b).
The prevailing Hellenistic outlook influenced the description of Abraham in the Apocrypha. He is the founder of a city and a legislator, the two principal functions of a great leader according to the Hellenistic concept, and his wisdom is described in extravagant terms. According to the Apocrypha his recognition of God stemmed from his knowledge of astronomy which he taught to the great men of his generation. Hence there developed the idea that Abraham was an expert in many and varied spheres. The Book of Jubilees even declares that he instructed men in the art of improved plowing, so as to conceal the seeds from the ravens (11: 18–24). His Babylonian origin is emphasized in conformity with the contemporary outlook which regarded that country as the cradle of mysticism. On the basis of Genesis 17:5 Abraham was deemed to be the progenitor of the Spartans too (i Macc. 12:20–22; ii Macc. 5:9). The Testament of *Abraham and the Apocalypse of *Abraham are devoted to him. Philo deals with him in his De Migratione Abrahami, while extracts from Hellenistic Jewish writers about him have been preserved by Eusebius. In iv Macc. 14:20; 15:28 Abraham typifies the ability to withstand oppression. The background of this description of Abraham was the persecution of the Jews of Alexandria at that time.
[Israel Moses Ta-Shma]
In Jewish Philosophy
Over the generations, Jewish thinkers, from Philo Judaeus of Alexandia to Joseph *Soloveitchik and Yeshayahu *Leibowitz, have regarded Abraham as the archetypal believer, in accordance with the image of Abraham in the Hebrew Bible and Midrash: his origins in pagan environs (Josh. 24:2); the testimony of Genesis 15:6 that Abraham "believed in the Lord", and Abraham's absolute obedience to divine commandments, beginning with his leaving his homeland (Gen. 12:1) and culminating in his binding of his son Isaac (Gen. 22:2; see *Akedah). In addition to this biblical image of Abraham, Jewish philosophers found in rabbinic Midrashim views of Abraham according to which he smashed the prevalent idols and came to believe in the one God (Gen. R. 38); Genesis 12:5 ("and the persons he had acquired in Haran") was interpreted to mean people Abraham converted (Gen. R. 39:14; cf. Targum Onkelos and Rashi to Gen. 12:5); and Genesis 34:12 ("He took him outside and said: Look at the sky") was understood as meaning that Abraham no longer had anything to do with astrology.
Eventually two paradigms evolved, in which the image of Abraham came to reflect two basic approaches to Jewish philosophy. According to the first school of thought, in which religion was understood rationally, Abraham was seen as a philosopher whose faith in God was the conclusion of scientific reasoning. According to the other school of thought, Abraham was seen as a believer whose faith and experience of divine revelation transcended his earlier philosophical or scientific speculation.
The first view of Abraham as a philosopher is found in Hellenistic Jewish literature. *Philo Judaeus of Alexandria described Abraham as an autodidact philosopher who concluded that God exists. Philo interpreted Abraham's wanderings and wars allegorically as a process of coming to know God (De Abrahamo 68). Philo's younger contemporary, the historian *Josephus Flavius, similarly attributed to Abraham the spreading of monotheism after he had rationally deduced the existence of God who cares providentially for human welfare (Antiquitiesi, 7:155–56) and who had instructed the Egyptians in the ancient Chaldean sciences, such as arithmetic and astronomy, which were later transmitted to the Greeks (Antiquities, 167–68).
This view of Abraham as a philosopher is also found in medieval Jewish thought. *Maimonides characterized Abraham as a natural philosopher who independently articulated the Aristotelian cosmological proof of an incorporeal unmoved mover of the heavenly sphere. Paradoxically, for Maimonides, in *Judah Halevi's famous phrase, the "God of Abraham" effectively was identified with the "God of Aristotle." During his wanderings from Mesopotamia to Canaan, Abraham then spread his concept of a transcendent God (Yad, Avodah Zarah 1:3; Guide of the Perplexed 3:29), and became "the father of the whole world by teaching them faith" (Responsa, ed. Blau, 293). Only Moses, "the father of all prophets" (Commentary on Mishnah Avot 4:4; Guide of the Perplexed 3:54) was of a higher rank than Abraham (Guide 2:45). It should be noted that, in Maimonides' view, prophecy itself was understood to be a thoroughly rational phenomenon (Commentary on Mishnah, Introduction to Sanhedrin ch. 10, sixth principle; see *Prophecy). Nevertheless, Maimonides states that Abraham and Moses prophetically grasped the supranatural understanding of creation ex nihilo and thus differed from the Aristotelian philosophic belief in the world's eternity (Guide 2:13, 17, 23).
The Hellenistic and medieval Jewish view of Abraham as philosopher is also found in modern Jewish thought. Nachman *Krochmal's Guide of the Perplexed of the Time pictures Abraham as a philosopher who deduced the teleological proof from design of God's existence and as the first monotheist who affirmed the "Absolute Spirit."
The other school of thought, which identifies Abraham as the first believer, is most clearly enunciated by *Judah Halevi, whose Kuzari (4:16) juxtaposes "the God of Abraham" (identified with the *Tetragrammaton) with "the God of Aristotle" (identified with the name elohim). "The God of Abraham" is the personal God of the Bible, who is loved and known through the direct experience called "taste" (Arab. dhauq; Heb. ta'am), whereas the impersonal "God of Aristotle," who is indifferent to the world and to human affairs, is known through rational speculation (Arab. qiyas; Heb. hekesh, hakashah). In Halevi's view, Abraham himself underwent a radical transformation in his life: after composing the Sefer *Yeẓirah in his early years as a philosopher, Abraham merited divine revelation and true faith, as a consequence of which he was prepared to obey any divine commandment (Kuzari 4:24–27). Halevi thus partially accepts the rationalist view of Abraham as a philosopher, but it was as a prophet, receiving divine revelation, and not as a natural philosopher, that Abraham attained his spiritual greatness.
Following Halevi, Isaac *Arama argued that philosophy and faith are unrelated. Philosophers know what can be demonstrated and deny whatever cannot be demonstrated, but reject the concept of "faith" (Ḥazut Kashah 3). Arama's works describe in detail the gradual progression of Abraham's faith, beginning with his transition from idolatry to a scientific-philosophic conclusion regarding the existence of one God (Akedat Yiẓḥak 16), which in turn led to practical application in loving imitatio Dei. Abraham's spiritual progression culminated in his religious faith in reward and punishment and in his fear of God, which were realized in his binding of his son Isaac as an expression of his absolute obedience to God (Ḥazut Kashah 3).
In the 20th century, Joseph Soloveitchik's Lonely Man of Faith (1965) presents a view of Abraham as dissatisfied with his early Mesopotamian contemplation of remote and alienating skies, which had led him to conclude that there is one God. As he progressed, Abraham needed personal revelation. In contrast with the view of Halevi and Arama, according to which Abraham passed from an earlier philosophic or scientific contemplative stage to prophetic receiving of divine revelation, or Soloveitchik's understanding of Abraham as undergoing a personal experience of revelation, Yeshayahu Leibowitz describes Abraham as reaching his faith as a result of a voluntary, religious decision and not as the conclusion of rational contemplation. Abraham, in Leibowitz's view, represents "faith for its own sake," namely an unreasoned obedience to the divine commandment, without any human benefit or expectation of reward.
Several Jewish thinkers have also dealt with Abraham's personality, including judging his questionable behavior in Egypt (Gen. 12) and Gerar (Gen. 20), when, fearing that he might be killed, he presented his wife Sarah as his sister. *Saadiah Gaon's Book of Beliefs and Opinions deals with the charge that Abraham lied, and justifies his behavior by suggesting that Abraham phrased his statement ambivalently, since "sister" could mean any relative, thus permitting his words to be interpreted as if they were true. Conversely, *Naḥmanides did not hesitate to criticize Abraham's behavior, not so much for his misleading words but for thereby leading the people to great sin and for causing his "righteous wife" to stumble (Commentary to Gen. 12:10, 20:12). Abraham's sin resulted from his insufficient trust in God's assistance. Isaac Arama's presentation (discussed above) of Abraham's gradual spiritual progress and the development of his personality attributed his behavior in these incidents to an early stage, when Abraham had not yet attained perfect faith in divine providence and utter trust in divine assistance (Binding of Isaac 16).
[Hannah Kasher (2nd ed.)]
In Christian Tradition
Next to Moses, Abraham is the Old Testament figure most frequently referred to in the New Testament, being mentioned 72 times. The Evangelists emphasize the physical descent of Jesus, from Abraham through David (Matt. 1:1, 2–17; Luke 3:34), but Christian tradition considers Abraham essentially in the spiritual sense as the father of all believers destined to inherit the divine promises. According to Paul (Rom. 4; Gal. 3:7–9), to the authors of the Epistle of James (2:21–23) and the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:8–10), Abraham, because of his "faith" (cf. Gen. 15:6, and see above), became the repository of the divine promises through whose seed all nations of the earth would ultimately be blessed (cf. Gen. 12:2–4). Hence all Christians, through their faith in the Messiah, are the children of Abraham to the extent that Abraham's righteousness because of his faith (and not because of his belief in the Law) is imparted to all believers in Jesus (Rom. 4:13–25). The *Church Fathers interpret the figure of Abraham in moral and typological terms. They emphasize his obedience to God in leaving his homeland (Ambrose), thus prefiguring the Apostles' following of Jesus (Augustine). His submission to God's will in all trials, even to the point of being prepared to sacrifice his son (see *Akedah) has been taken as a prefiguration of the death of Jesus. The New Testament mentions once "*Abraham's bosom" (Luke 16:22) – a rabbinic term referring to the place of repose of the righteous in the hereafter. In the writings of *Luther and of the 19th-century philosopher S. Kierkegaard, Abraham figures as the paradigm of the man of faith whose total commitment to God is based not on reason but on pure faith.
In Islamic Tradition
"The [book] leaves of Abraham" are mentioned, together with those of Moses, in two of the older suras (87:19; 53:37) of the Koran. This indicates that Abraham was known to Muhammad as one of the fathers of the monotheistic belief from the beginning of the latter's career; however, Muhammad must have learned that Abraham did not promulgate a book. When Muhammad began to fill his suras with stories of the prophets, Abraham received a large share, mainly on the basis of material drawn from talmudic legends. Abraham, by his own reasoning, recognized that his Creator was God and not a shining star, the moon, or the sun. He smashed the idols of his father, was thrown into a furnace, was miraculously saved, and migrated to the Holy Land. Though long childless, he believed in God's promise of a son and, when a son was born to him, he was prepared to sacrifice him at God's command. It is remarkable that Ishmael, later so prominent in the Koran, does not appear in any connection with his father during the middle Meccan period, e.g., Sura 29:26, "We [God] gave him [Abraham] Isaac and Jacob, and bestowed on his posterity the gift of prophecy and the book." Also, 11:24, "We brought her [Sarah] the good tidings of Isaac and, after Isaac, Jacob" (cf. similar statements in 37:112–3 and 21:72). During this period, Ishmael is not treated as an individual in a story, but is merely mentioned as a name in a series of prophets and saints, together with such biblical personalities as Aaron, Job, or Elisha, i.e., far removed from Abraham. Just as there is no connection between Abraham and Ishmael, so there is none between Abraham and the building of the Kaaba, the sanctuary of Muhammad's native city, until late in Muhammad's prophetic career (e.g., Sura 2:118 ff.).
There is also little doubt that, in one form or another, he heard the story of Abraham as the founder of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem, as told in the Book of Jubilees (22:23–4). The story goes back to ii Chronicles 3:1, according to which Solomon built the Temple on the same Mount of Moriah on which Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac (Gen. 22:2). The Book of Jubilees elaborates the story and lets Abraham say that he has built this house in order to put his name on it in the country which God has given to him and to his posterity, and that it will be given to him (Jacob) and to his posterity forever. With the aid of the new material Muhammad constructed the ingenious theory that Abraham built the Kaaba together with his son Ishmael (2:121), father of the Arabs, and thus founded the religion of Islam, which he, Muhammad, promulgated among his own people. The very word Islam and the idea contained in it, namely that of complete dedication to God, is connected with the story of Abraham, e.g., Sura 2:125, "When God said to him [Abraham], 'dedicate yourself to God [aslim],' he said, 'I dedicate myself to the Lord of the Worlds.'" Or (22:77): "This is the religion of your father Abraham. He called you muslimīn," i.e., those who dedicate themselves to God. This expression goes back to Genesis 17:1 in the version of Targum *Onkelos, where Abraham is admonished by God to become shelīm, and the subsequent definition of a proselyte as one who dedicates himself to his Creator (hishlīm aẓmo la-bore; cf. Goldziher, in: M. Steinschneider, Polemische und apologetische Literatur in arabischer Sprache (1877), 266, n. 56). Muhammad emphatically states that Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian (Sura 2:140/134; 3:6760); this new knowledge did not lead him back to his original primitive universalism, but, on the contrary, made Islam, the religion of Abraham, father of the Arabs, exclusive, the "best religion" (3:110/106), prior in time, and therefore in quality, to all others.
The koranic story of Abraham, which contains many rabbinical legends, is fully covered by H. Speyer in Die biblischen Erzaehlungen im Qoran (1961, pp. 120–86; see also Moubarac in bibl.). The enormous expansion of these stories in Islamic religious, historical, and narrative literature has been researched by four generations of Jewish scholars, beginning with A. *Geiger (Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen, 1833) up to B. Heller (especially in ej, and in eis2, s.v.Ibrāhīm). These researches show that the legends had been spread in Arabia in very early times. *Umayya ibn Abī al-Salt, Muhammad's contemporary and rival, also knew the tales about Abraham.
[Shelomo Dov Goitein]
In Medieval Hebrew Literature
The various legends about Abraham scattered in midrashic literature formed the basis from which medieval Hebrew writers tried to construct a coherent story of his birth, his youth, and his recognition of the one God. The medieval story was written in a few versions. Three stories, published by A. *Jellinek in his Beit ha-Midrash (one long and detailed version and two short legends, see bibliography), are replete with motifs and elements which are not midrashic, but probably originated with the medieval authors. Abraham's recognition of the existence of only one God, which made him the first monotheist, and Abraham as a martyr, are the two principal recurring motifs. In the narratives centered around the first motif, Abraham was left in a cave immediately after birth because Nimrod, the god-king of Babylonia, who had had an astrological warning that a child would be born that year who would dethrone him, decreed that all male children be killed. In the cave the angel *Gabriel nursed Abraham, who within a few days could already walk and talk. Upon his return to his father's house, he began to spread monotheistic belief.
In the medieval work Sefer ha-Yashar, which renders the biblical stories in a medieval style (see *Fiction: The Retelling of Bible Stories), the story of Abraham, told in detail, is based both upon midrashic and medieval literatures, to which the anonymous author added details of his own. In one of the stories about Abraham known in the Middle Ages (the earliest version is found in 12th-century sources), Abraham in his youth went to study with Shem, the son of Noah. Together they made a golem, that is, a person out of earth and water who miraculously came to life. Such stories were later told about the prophet *Jeremiah and *Ben Sira, who claimed to be his grandson. This golem story is undoubtedly connected with another medieval belief about Abraham, mainly that he was the author of Sefer Yeẓirah ("Book of Creation"), one of the first cosmological writings in Hebrew, which was extensively used by Jewish mystics who saw it as a revelation of the mystical way in which the heavenly and earthly worlds were created. It was believed that proper use of the knowledge in Sefer Yeẓirah would also enable the mystics to create a golem, and that the work contained the process of reasoning that Abraham followed to establish the unity of God. To medieval philosophers and mystics, Abraham had been not only a person, but also a symbol. In the controversy that raged around the study of philosophy in Spain and in Provence at the beginning of the 14th century, the philosophers were accused of interpreting the story of Abraham and Sarah allegorically, through seeing the figures of Abraham and Sarah as personifications of the relationship between matter and form (according to Aristotelian philosophy). The kabbalists on the other hand, saw Abraham as a personification of Ḥesed ("loving-kindness"), the fourth of the Ten *Sefirot (see *Kabbalah).
In the Arts
Early literary treatment of episodes in the life of Abraham in addition to the sacrifice of Isaac (see *Akedah) have been found in medieval English miracle plays, such as the Histories of Lot and Abraham, and in the 15th-century French Mistere du Viel Testament, which deals with Abraham's complete life. The outstanding Renaissance work on the theme is one of a series of Italian religious dramas, the Rappresentazione de Abram e di Sara sua moglie (1556). The episode involving Hagar has also inspired some plays, notably Hagar dans le desert (1781) by the French Comtesse de Genlis, and a Dutch drama Hagar (1848) by the convert Isaac *da Costa, who saw in Hagar's return to Abraham's tent Islam's ultimate reconciliation with Christianity. The outstanding Jewish work of fiction based on the theme is Yesod Olam ("Foundation of the World") by Moses ben Mordecai *Zacuto. Based on midrashic sources, this play, dramatically insubstantial though it is, is significant by reason of its being one of the earliest plays to be written in Hebrew.
The story of Abraham has inspired greater creative endeavor in the pictorial arts. Scenes from the patriarch's life have been illustrated in paintings, sculpture, manuscript illuminations, and mosaics. Usually represented as a white-bearded old man, armed with a knife, Abraham was a favorite subject not only for Christian artists (as a prefiguration of Jesus), but also for Moslems. Two rare examples of cyclic treatment are the 12th-century mosaics in the cathedral of San Marco, Venice, and a set of 16th-century Flemish tapestries by Bernard van Orley. Varying combinations of important episodes are found in fifth-century mosaics in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome; in the sixth-century manuscript known as the Vienna Genesis; in the sixth-century mosaics in Ravenna; in the bronze doors of San Zeno, Verona, the altar of Verdun, and the frescoes of Saint-Savin, Poitou (all 12th century); and in Ghiberti's bronze doors at the Florence baptistry (15th century).
Episodes particularly favored by Christian artists were Abraham's encounter with Melchizedek, the visit of the three angels, and the Akedah. In the first, stress was laid on the dual significance of the scene, Abraham's offering of tithes to the priest-king symbolizing the presentation of gifts to the infant Jesus by the three Magi, and Melchizedek's offering of bread and wine to Abraham prefiguring the Eucharist. The Melchizedek episode appears in the works at Rome, Ravenna, and Poitou referred to above and in the 13th-century portal of Amiens cathedral, and it inspired Tintoretto's painting for the Scuola di San Rocco, Venice (16th century). Melchizedek is usually depicted wearing a crown and bearing a chalice, while Abraham is often shown as a knight in armor. The visit of the angels has been variously interpreted by Christian artists. In the eastern church the angels were seen as a prediction of the Trinity and there are many icons on this theme, notably the delicate painting by Andrei Rublev (1422), now in Moscow. In western countries, their announcement of the impending birth of Isaac was thought to prefigure the Annunciation, and this traditional medieval reading inspires the Rome mosaics, the Verdun altar, the doors of San Zeno, and the 12th-century Psalter of Saint Louis (Paris). From the 17th century onward this incident was taken as the archetype of hospitality, inspiring such post-Renaissance paintings as those of *Rembrandt (1636, now in Leningrad), Murillo, and the Tiepolos. The dismissal of Hagar – whom the Church took to prefigure the superseded "Old Law," Sarah symbolizing the New – was popular in the 17th century particularly with Dutch artists, mainly because it offered opportunities for domestic and emotionally dramatic scenes. The episode was thus exploited by Rubens, Rembrandt, Nicolaes Maes, and Jan Steen. A French artist of a later period who treated the same subject was Corot. A parable in the Gospel of Luke (16:22) was responsible for a quaint treatment of Abraham in representations of the Last Judgment on Gothic cathedrals such as Paris, Rheims, Bourges, and Bamberg. Here the saved souls are shown being gathered into "Abraham's bosom." Among modern Jewish artists, Chagall, who was particularly fascinated by the life of Abraham, painted many scenes from the patriarch's life story, including the circumcision of Isaac.
The most popular representation of Abraham in Jewish art was that showing the Akedah. This appears on the western wall of the *Dura-Europos synagogue of the third century c.e. This theme lent itself to representations in the continuous or narrative style, in which a sequence of events is represented without frame or formal interruptions, as in the mosaic floor of the *Bet Alfa (sixth century c.e.) synagogue. Other popular themes were the appearance of the three angels to Abraham and his condemnation to death through fire by Nimrod. An outstanding example of the latter is found in a British Museum illuminated manuscript (Ms. Add. 27210) where Abraham is rescued by two figures, not found in other illustrations. An elderly bearded male with outstretched arms is seen in the foreground, while in the background is an angel with clearly defined wings. It is improbable that both these figures represent angels as they appear of different age and complexion. The older figure may therefore represent God, a fact which would suggest a Christian illuminator.
The story of Abraham provided the basis for several musical compositions from the late 18th century onward. The Hagar and Ishmael episode was the theme of oratorios, notably Scarlatti's Agar et Ismaele esiliati (1683) and Giovanni Battista Vitali's Agar (1671). Of the few works on the sojourn in Egypt, the oratorio Sara in Egitto (1708) probably holds the record among "pasticcios" – works in which several composers collaborated or were used – since the setting of the libretto was entrusted to no fewer than 24 composers. Schubert's first song, written in March 1811, was "Hagars Klage." The only opera on this subtheme, Agar au désert (1806) by Etienne Nicolas Méhul, was never performed. Michael *Gnessin wrote an opera on Abraham's youth, during his visit to Ereẓ Israel in 1922. Prominent among the more specifically Jewish compositions are the Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) romances, Cuando el Rey Nimrod, Abram Abinu, and En primero alabaremos, which reflect the legend of Abraham's birth found in the Sefer ha-Yashar; some also mention the Akedah. The romanza El Dios de cielo de Abraham used to be sung in Tetuan, Morocco.
Noth, Personennamen, 52, 145. add. bibliography: R. Clements, Abraham and David (1967); T.L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (1973); J. van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (1974); Y. Muffs, in: jjs, 33 (1982), 81–107; A.E. Knauf, in: bz, 29 (1985), 97–103; N.M. Sarna, The jps Torah Commentary Genesis (1989); A. Millard, "Abraham," in: abd, 1:35–41; S.D. Sperling, The Original Torah (1998), 75–90. in the aggadah: Ginzberg, Legends, 1 (1942), 185 ff.; 5 (1947), 207 ff.; Schwarzbaum, in: Yeda Am, 9 (1963/64), 38–46; E.E. Halevy, Sha'arei ha-Aggadah (1963), 72–82; G.H. Box, Apocrypha of Abraham (1918); A. Marmorstein, The Doctrine of Merits in Old Rabbinical Literature (1920), index; Sandmel, in: huca, 26 (1955), 151–332; J.J. Petuchowski, ibid., 28 (1957), 127–36; Wacholder, ibid., 34 (1963), 83–113; G. Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism (1961), 67–126. in jewish philosophy:add. bibliography: M. Hallamish, H. Kasher, and Y. Silman (eds.), The Faith of Abraham (Heb., 2002); D.J. Lasker, "The Prophecy of Abraham in Karaite Thought," in: Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought, 14 (J.B. Sermoneta Memorial Volume, 1998). in christian tradition: Cahiers Sioniens, 5, no. 2 (1951), 93 ff.; G. Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 1 (1964), 9; J. Hastings (ed.), Dictionary of the Bible, 1 (1911), 16–17; Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, 1 (1902), 99–111. in islam: A. Sprenger, Leben und Lehre des Mohammad, 2 (1869), 276 ff.; C. Snouk Hurgronje, Het Mekkaansche Feest (1880), 30 ff.; B. Heller, in: rej, 85 (1928), 117, 126; 98 (1934), 1–18; J.W. Hirschberg, Der Diwan des as-Samauʾal ibn ʿAdiʾ (1931), 63–64; idem, Juedische und christliche Lehren im vor- und fruehislamischen Arabien (1939), 124–9; J. Ankel, in: huca, 12–13 (1938), 387–409; Y. Moubarac, Abraham dans le Coran (1958), includes bibliography; S.D. Goitein, Ha-Islam shel Muḥammad (1956), 180–6. add. bibliography: I. al-Khalil, in eis2, 3, s.v. (incl. bibl.). medieval hebrew literature: A. Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, 1 (19382), 18–19; 5 (19382), 40–41; G. Scholem, Kabbalah and its Mysticism (1965), 168–79. in art: L. Réau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 2, pt. 2 (1956), 125–38; T. Ehrenstein, Das Alte Testament im Bilde (1923), 135–54; The Bible in art (1956), plates 39–48; J. Leveen, The Hebrew Bible in Art (1944), index.
BORN: c. 2050 bce • Ur, Mesopotamia
DIED: c. 1950 bce • Hebron, Canaan
Abraham is considered by many scholars to be one of the most important figures in religious history. His belief in one supreme being had a significant effect on the development of Western religion, and his life is often seen as a symbol of the power of faith and loyalty.
"I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;… and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you."
—God to Abraham, Genesis 12:2-3
Abraham plays a central role in the major religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Christians believe that Abraham had much in common with Jesus Christ (c. 6 bce-c. 30 ce; see entry), since both received promises from God to bless humanity. In the Islamic faith he is regarded as the first prophet, or messenger of God, as well as the ancestor (through his first son, Ishmael) of the Arab people. Both Christianity and Islam, as well as Judaism, look to Abraham as a founding father of their faith. In a 2002 Time magazine article, David Van Biema noted: "In fact, excluding God, Abraham is the only biblical figure who enjoys the unanimous acclaim of all three faiths, the only one … referred to by all three as Father."
The only records of Abraham's life come from oral tradition and passages in the Bible and the Islamic holy book, the Qurʾan. This has made it difficult for historians to write a completely factual biography of him. The life of Abraham is thus a mixture of historical reconstruction, religious legend, and guesswork.
A child of Mesopotamia
Abraham was born in Ur, the major city of Mesopotamia, near modern-day Baghdad. According to the Bible, he was originally given the name of Abram or Avram, which means "exalted father" in Hebrew. It was much later in his life that God supposedly gave him the name Abraham, which means "father of many nations."
Abram's father, Terah, was well over seventy when Abram and his brothers, Haran and Nahor, were born. Abram was raised in a wealthy family. Terah owned property and livestock and also is said to have made idols (images worshipped as gods) of various gods of ancient Babylonia. Polytheism, or belief in many gods, was common among Mesopotamians and Babylonians during this period. Ur was the center of a cult, or group of religious followers, that worshipped Nanna, the moon god. Around the time of Abram's birth, the Babylonians began to recognize one god, Marduk, as having power over all the other gods. Some historians consider this an early move in the direction of monotheism, or the belief in one supreme being.
Many stories grew around the fact that Terah produced idols and his son Abram did not believe in worshipping them. People would pray to the idols, which represented various gods. One legend had young Abram breaking all the idols in a shop except for one, which was said to be an early hint that his later beliefs would turn to monotheism. Other tales have him criticizing older customers for buying idols. Several later stories relate how Abram burned his father's idols. The Qurʾan recounts that because of his disapproval of idols, Abram was condemned to burn in the furnace of the king of Babylon, but God protected him. Abram's brother, Haran, also did not believe in idols, but he was not saved by God. He is said to have died in the furnace because his faith in God was not strong enough.
Promise of a new land
Terah decided to leave Ur around the time Abram married his half sister, Sarai. Tereh took his family, including Abram, Sarai, and Haran's son, Lot, with him. They settled in the city of Haran (later part of Turkey). After Terah died, Abram received his first message from God, telling him to leave his homeland behind and to go to the land that God would show him.
Abram was seventy-five at the time, and, according to the account in Genesis from the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Bible, he had not demonstrated any specific religious beliefs or devotion. The tales of his destruction of the idols were a much later addition to the Abraham legend. According to the passages in Genesis numbered chapter 12, verse 2 (12:2) and 12:3, God told Abram: "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you." This passage from the Old Testament became an important part of a later Christian argument from the Apostle Paul (c. 3 bce–c. 67 ce; see entry). An apostle was one of a group of people in the New Testament of the Bible who were sent out to preach the words of Jesus Christ. Paul believed that these words showed that Abraham passed on God's blessing to all humankind, not just to Jews, paving the way for the rise of Christianity.
Abram listened to the word of God and set out from Haran with his wife, his nephew, Lot, and the community that had gathered around them. The group traveled west to the Euphrates River, crossing it and perhaps stopping temporarily at ancient Damascus, now a part of Syria. From there they traveled south and east, crossing the Jordan River and reaching the plain of Schechem. God again appeared to Abram and promised him and his offspring the surrounding land of Canaan (modern-day Israel), even though it was already populated by Canaanites, the descendants of Noah and his son, Ham. Abram built an altar to God at Schechem and then moved on to Bethel, north of Jerusalem, where he built another altar.
According to Genesis, Abram and his followers remained in Canaan until a famine drove them farther south into Egypt. There, fearful that the sight of his beautiful wife, Sarai, might cause the Egyptians to murder him in order to win his bride, Abram told Sarai that they would travel as brother and sister. When the Egyptian pharaoh saw her, he took Sarai into his harem, not knowing that she was Abram's wife. Abram became wealthy as a result of this, acquiring sheep, cattle, and servants from the pharaoh. Such payments were compensation from the pharaoh for taking Sarai into the harem. When God learned of this, however, it displeased Him and He punished the pharaoh with a plague. As a result, the pharaoh became angry with Abram, returned Sarai, and ordered Abram and his people to leave Egypt with their carts of wealth.
They returned to Canaan. There, Lot and Abram decided to part company because of arguments between the men who tended their livestock. Lot and his followers set off for the lands east of the Jordan River and southwest of the Dead Sea, where the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were located. Again God appeared to Abram and told him that the lands to the north were his, so Abram and his group traveled to Hebron, where they settled and built another altar to God. Abram then heard that Lot and his group had been caught up in a war between the king of Sodom and three other kings and had been taken prisoner. Abram gathered 318 fighters and rescued his nephew. God then gave Abram a prophesy, or a foretelling of the future. He told Abram that the land between the Nile River and the Euphrates would belong to his descendants, but that they would be enslaved and mistreated for four centuries before such things came to pass. God also promised Abram that he would have as many heirs (children) as there were stars in the sky.
Fulfilling God's promise
In Egypt Sarai had acquired a maid named Hagar. Sarai was unable to bear children, so she gave Abram this maid to provide him with heirs. When Abram was eighty-six, Hagar gave birth to his son, Ishmael. Sarai soon grew jealous of her maid and drove her away, but God sent Hagar back. When Abram was ninety-nine, God again appeared to him and told him that he would be the father of many nations. God also declared that he was no longer to be known as Abram, but as Abraham.
Abraham's wife's name was changed to Sarah, and God said that she would bear a male child who would carry on Abraham's line and the covenant, or agreement, with God that promised that Abraham and his heirs would be blessed. The child would be called Isaac, meaning "he laughs," because Abraham laughed at the idea of having a son at the age of one hundred. Ishmael, the first-born son, would be blessed as the father of twelve rulers, which both Jews and Arabs believe to be the twelve Arab tribes.
Bargaining with God
A short time later, God appeared again, disguised as a visitor with two companions, and Abraham proved himself a generous host to these strangers. God let Abraham know that he was going to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. Abraham bargained with God in order to save Lot, who still lived in Sodom. God agreed that if He could find ten righteous people in Sodom, He would spare the city. Although He failed to find ten good people, God did warn Lot and his family to leave the city before He destroyed it. Lot's wife, however, was turned into a column of salt because, although she was told not to, she glanced back to look at the city as they ran away.
After the destruction of Sodom, Abraham and his household moved to Gerar, located in the western Negev desert, about nine miles southeast of Gaza and fifteen miles northwest of Beersheba. Again fearing for his life because of his beautiful wife, Abraham introduced Sarah as his sister. The local king, Abimelech, was attracted to her and took her into his house, but once again God intervened. The king returned Abraham's wife untouched and gave Abraham sheep, cattle, slaves, and money as a form of apology.
Accepting God's will
As promised, Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah while they were living in Gerar. Sarah still wished to get rid of Hagar and Hagar's son, Ishmael, and Abraham allowed her to send them away. God saved them, however, and, according to the Qurʾan, mother and son traveled to Mecca, where Abraham often went to visit them.
The Birth of the Jews
God's blessing of Abraham was passed on to Abraham's son, Isaac. Isaac had two children, Esau and Jacob. Esau, as the oldest, was chosen to receive the blessing after his father. Jacob, however, tricked his brother out of his birthright by offering the hungry Esau a bowl of soup in exchange for his inheritance. Jacob, who later became known as Israel, had a dozen sons, and these sons formed the twelve tribes of Israel. Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun settled in the north of Canaan, while Ruben, Simeon, and Gad settled in the south. Benjamin made his home in the west, as did Ephriam and Menassah, the children of Joseph, Jacob's favorite son. Dan, Asher, and Naphtali moved to districts in the east. The tribe of Jacob's third son, Levi, was set apart to serve the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Bible refers to Abraham and his descendants as Hebrews, and later, after Jacob's change of name to Israel, as Israelites. The term Jew is a shortened version of Judahites, which is what the inhabitants of Judah's northern tribe were called.
God had one more test for Abraham. He wanted him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. (In Islamic tradition, it was believed that Ishmael was to have been the sacrifice.) Abraham obeyed this command and took his son, who was then probably an adult, to the appointed place, tied him down, and was about to kill him when God called out for Abraham to stop. As recounted in Genesis 22:12, God said, "Do not lay a hand on the boy…. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." Then God renewed his promise to Abraham, saying, "I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies and through your offspring all the nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me" (Genesis 22:17-18).
Abraham's wife Sarah reportedly lived to be 127 years old. When she died, Abraham buried her in the cave of Machpelah near Hebron and eventually took another wife, Keturah, who bore him many children. Abraham left all his possessions to his son Isaac, who married Rebekah. They became the parents of Jacob and Esau. Jacob, in turn, had a dozen sons who later formed the twelve tribes of Israel. Abraham is said to have lived to the age of 175, although this has never been confirmed. He was buried next to Sarah.
The importance of Abraham
The life of Abraham has had a profound influence on Hebrew ( Jewish) culture right up to the modern day. It was Abraham who refused to follow polytheism and pursued the belief in one god, and it was to Abraham that God promised the lands between the Nile and the Euphrates rivers. Such a promise is important even in the modern-day state of Israel, as many Israelis believe it gives authority to their claim to the lands in this region. Jews trace their ancestry back to Abraham, his son Isaac, and grandson Jacob. Many Jews also see Abraham as a role model of faith, obedience, and success.
Abraham and the Old Testament story of Abraham's blessing also figures prominently in Christianity. Christians claim that God blessed all nations on Earth through Abraham, therefore showing that Judaism is not the one and true religion. In the orthodox, or conservative, Christian view, this interpretation is taken even further. Conservative Christians believe that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of God's blessing and that Christianity is the true religion of God. In Islam, Abraham is considered to be a prophet. The Qurʾan states that he was in fact the first Muslim. Christians also point out that Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac was similar to God's later sacrifice of his only son, Jesus. As a test of his faith, Abraham was required to show his love for God by sacrificing his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Just as Isaac carried wood for his own sacrifice up the mountain and did not fight being sacrificed, so did Jesus carry his own cross and allowed himself to be crucified.
Similarly, Muslims also look to Abraham, whom they call Ibrahim, as one of the fathers of their faith. The Prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632; see entry) claimed Abraham was the first messenger or prophet of God, while he, Muhammad, was the final prophet. Arabs also see Abraham's first-born, Ishmael, or Ismail, as the ancestor of the Arab people. According to Muslim tradition, Ibrahim and Ismail built the Kaʾaba inside the Great Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam. The Kaʾaba is thought to be the shrine that Ibrahim built to God when he was traveling in the desert. The five repetitions of daily Muslim prayer also begin and end with a reference to Abraham.
For More Information
Feiler, Bruce. Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005.
Schultz, Samuel J. The Old Testament Speaks. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1970.
Van Seters, John. "Abraham." Encyclopedia of Religion. Edited by Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005, pp. 13-17.
Wilson, Marvin R. Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1989.
Baschet, Jerome. "Medieval Abraham." MLN (September 1993): 738.
Lerner, Michael. "Cruelty Is Not Destiny: Abraham and the Psychodynamics of Childhood." Tikkun (September-October 1994): 33.
Van Biema, David. "The Legacy of Abraham." Time (September 30, 2002): 64.
"Abraham." WebBible Encyclopedia. http://www.christiananswers.net/dictionary/abraham.html (accessed on May 22, 2006).
Howlett, J. A. "Abraham." Catholic Encyclopedia Online. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/01051a.htm (accessed on May 22, 2006).
Abraham was a full-blooded African slave who escaped and adapted himself to the customs and language of the Muskogee Seminole Indians living in Florida. As was their custom toward runaway slaves, the Seminoles' welcomed Abraham. Over time, Abraham's relationship with the Seminole Indians evolved such that they regarded him as both a brother and ally. Eventually he became chief of Peliklakaha, one of four major Seminole Negro communities under the tribal authority of prin-cipal Chief Micanopy (sometimes spelled Mickenopah). Peliklakaha became the most influential of the Negro communities located in Seminole Indian territory because Abraham lived in it and because Chief Micanopy preferred living there much of the time rather than at his official residence in Okihumpky.
Little is known about Abraham's birth, boyhood, and family life. Some historians say he was born in Georgia in the Late 1790s; others contend that he was born in Florida sometime during this same period. Before escaping from his master, Abraham lived and worked as a slave for a Spanish doctor in Pensacola, Florida. It is apparent that Abraham came in contact with teachings of the Christian religion, which was not unusual for slaves living on a plantation. His speech was spiced with religious expressions, earning him the nickname "the Prophet."
Little is known about Abraham's family. Jeff Guinn, in Our Land Before We Die: The Proud Story of the Seminole Negro, records an excerpt from a letter U.S. Army General Thomas Sidney Jesup wrote to the commissioner of Indian Affairs: "I have promised Abraham the freedom of his family if he be faithful to us." On another occasion, Abraham delayed attending a meeting scheduled to negotiate Indian and American affairs because he needed to care for his family, but information about his family was not preserved.
In 1814 when the British military came to Florida to fight the U.S. Army over territory in the region, Major Edward Nicolls announced that all blacks living in Florida who joined England in its war against America would be rewarded with free land in the West Indies. Moreover, they would not be returned to former masters. Abraham was numbered among the 3,000 Indians and 400 blacks who joined the British forces. Immediately he and the other new recruits were armed and trained for military maneuvers. As part of his duty as a British soldier, Abraham helped to build a new fort about 150 miles east of Pensacola, near the mouth of the Apalachicola River. The believed-to-be indestructible three-walled fort, eventually called Negro Fort, was manned by escaped slaves, Abraham among them, and Seminole Indians. A black man served as its commander when Major Nicolls was called back to England. In 1816, Abraham miraculously survived being killed when the U.S. Army Marines and 500 Creek Indian mercenaries blew up Negro Fort following the orders of General Andrew Jackson. U.S. Navy ships bombarded the fort with a red hot cannonball heated in the furnace of the ship. The cannonball landed on hundreds of barrels of gunpowder, igniting Negro Fort into a burning inferno. The attack resulted in 270 dead and 64 wounded. Only three men escaped without injury.
Abraham as Interpreter and Negotiator
Abraham became significant when he was appointed the official spokesman for Chief Micanopy and when he served as interpreter between the Seminole Indians of Florida and the U.S. Army. His experience as a slave afforded him the ability to understand the thinking and actions of white men, an attribute which made him a keen negotiator, a masterful military strategist, and a fierce warrior. It is likely that Abraham spoke several languages, probably English, Spanish, the two primary Seminole languages—Hitchiti and Muskogee—and his own language, a Creole similar to Gullah. The interpreter's native language was likely a mixture of these and the African tongues he spoke. Abraham was so gifted with languages that government agents and military personnel with whom he negotiated expressed mixed feelings about him. On the one hand, they acknowledged his undeniable intelligence; on the other hand, they complained about Abraham and other black Seminole interpreters like him, such as Cudjo and John Horse. The agents and military men recognized, and rightly so, that the black interpreters dictated policy as they translated language between factions. According to an article by Dana Peck, General Jesup described Abraham as "a good soldier and an intrepid leader. He is a chief, and the most cunning and intelligent negro we have here." Another military officer said, "The negro Abraham is obviously a great man …. His countenance is one of great cunning and penetration. He always smiles, and his words flow like oil. His conversation is soft and low, but very distinct, with a most genteel emphasis."
- Late 1790s
- Born in Georgia or Florida
- Joins British military forces to fight U.S. Army
- Survives explosion at Fort Negro
- Becomes principal interpreter for Seminole Chief Micanopy and accompanies an official delegation to Washington, D.C.; gains freedom from Chief Micanopy as a reward for services rendered
- Takes part in the negotiations of the Indian Removal Act
- Enters negotiations with Colonel James Gadsden concerning the relocation of the Seminoles; is sent with six other leaders to examine the territory designated for the Creek Indians west of the Mississippi
- Initiates a peace agreement with General Edmund P. Gaines following the Indians' seizing of a U.S. military installation, Camp Izard
- Meets with U.S. Major General Thomas Jesup at Fort Dade to discuss peace negotiations; reaches an agreement regarding relocation of Seminole Indians and Seminole Negroes
- Moves west of the Mississippi with Seminole Indians and other Seminole Negroes
- Accompanies Wild Cat and Gopher John to Mexico to avoid continued U.S. government harassment
- Returns to Oklahoma following Wild Cat's death
Despite his genteel mannerism, Abraham was as fierce a negotiator for both the Seminole Indians and Seminole Negroes as he was a warrior. For example, he was a staunch opponent of the 1832 Treaty of Payne's Landing, a decree which stated that all Indians in Florida would move west of the Mississippi River to Indian Territory (in what later became Oklahoma) assigned to them by the U.S. government. Abraham fought this relocation treaty vehemently for at least two reasons. First, his loyalty to the Muskogee Seminoles made him want to protect them from being driven from their homesteads and land. Second, according to the treaty, Seminole Negroes would be returned to their white owners and/or sold back into slavery. Initially, Abraham, like other runaway slaves, was not willing to accept the Payne's Landing Treaty. The Seminole Negroes stood a double chance of losing their freedom. If the Seminole Indians agreed to relocate, the Seminole Negroes would be separated from them. All ties between the two groups would be severed by the Anglo Americans as the Seminole Indians boarded ships headed west from Tampa Bay. Or if the Seminole Negroes made the trip to Indian Territory, the Creek Indians, longtime enemies and excessively brutal slave owners, would capture and enslave the Seminole Negroes or sell them back into slavery. After intense bargaining, Abraham and the Seminole chiefs reached an agreement with U.S. Army General Jesup. During negotiations, Abraham would not compromise the welfare of the Seminole Negroes any more than he would compromise the Seminole Indians. According to Guinn, following the talks, General Jesup would write in a letter, "We have, at no former period in our history, had to contend with so formidable an enemy."
Broken Peace Agreement
Abraham used his diplomatic skills and the assistance of several Seminole chiefs to construct a peace agreement. The treaty promised that the Seminole Negroes could migrate to Indian Territory with the Seminole Indians and that both, as quoted by Guinn, "shall be secure in their lives and property." Among other promises, the peace agreement stated that the American government would pay a fair price for the horses and cattle the Seminole Indians and Negroes would leave behind, provide rations for one year, and provide seed for planting crops. In return, the Anglo Americans would have the Florida territory to themselves.
When the details of the treaty were publicized, General Jesup faced the ire of southerners from Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, and Florida. The plantation owners wanted their escaped slaves returned to them. They demanded the return of the slaves and the slave children and grandchildren of the runaways. Angry planters converged upon Fort Dade demanding their human property. The southerners' demands caused Jesup to relent. This decision put Abraham in a precarious position because it was he who urged the Seminole chiefs to agree to the relocation plan.
The subject of moving to Indian Territory generated much conflict and threatened to cost Abraham his life. At this time, close to a thousand Seminole Indians and Seminole Negroes were encamped around Fort Dade preparing to move west. Several Seminole chiefs were in this number as well. When slavers began to harass the Seminole Negroes, the Seminole Indians became irritated and began to distrust Jesup. Some sensed something was amiss and fled into the swamps. Some Seminole Negroes in the camp, however, were seized and returned to white masters or sold.
Osceola, the great warrior chief who never agreed to the Payne's Landing Treaty, came to the camp under cover of night and rescued almost all of the Seminole chiefs, Indians, and Negroes. Abraham was not among those rescued. At this point, his life was in danger. If he left camp, General Jesup could charge him with treason. Moreover, he would not be safe among the Seminole Indians and Negroes since some would blame him for Jesup's not honoring the treaty. Still others might feel Abraham had tricked them. Too, Abraham was reluctant to leave camp because he had witnessed Chief Osceola's rage when he fatally shot Chief Charley Emathla because Emathla decided to move his tribe west of the Mississippi. Osceola's influence among the Seminoles was as great as his rage against moving to Indian Territory, and Abraham was no longer viewed as a brother or ally. In the end, Abraham stayed in protective custody of the U.S. Army until he migrated west with several hundred Seminoles. There, in what later became Oklahoma, he lived, except for a brief time spent in Mexico, and continued to be engaged in the affairs of his people. Abraham—runaway slave, interpreter, warrior, freedom fighter, diplomat, Seminole chief—faced the challenges of his day with resolve and a tenacity to promote the wellbeing of his people. He is buried in Bruntertown Cemetery in Oklahoma.
Guinn, Jeff. Our Land Before We Die: The Proud Story of the Seminole Negro. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2002.
Lancaster, Jane F. Removal Aftershock: The Seminoles' Struggles to Survive in the West, 1836–1866. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994.
Porter, Kenneth W. The Black Seminole Indians: History of a Freedom-Seeking People. Eds. Alcione M. Amos and Thomas P. Senter. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.
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Chu, Chun W. "The Black Seminoles' Long March to Freedom." http://www.ccny.cuny.edu/library/News/seminoles2.html (Accessed 20 February 2006).
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West, Jean. "Seminoles and Slaves: Florida's Freedom Seekers." http://www.slaveryinamerica.org/history/hs_es_seminole.htm (Accessed 24 February 2006).
Jewell B. Parham
The patriarch Abraham (c. 1996 BC-1821 BC) started with humble beginnings as a son of Ur. Abraham is now regarded as one of the most influential people in all of history. The world's three largest monotheistic religions—in fact possibly monotheism itself—found their beginnings with him. Over 3 billion people in the modern world cite Abraham as the "father" of their religion. Abraham was promised by his God descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky, but today two branches of his family, the Jews and the Muslims, continue to battle for his birthright.
Birth of a Patriarch
In the Torah, Abraham's story is found in Lekh Lekha. In the Bible, it is the same, in Genesis, but is also commented on in the New Testament. In the Koran, Abraham can be found mentioned throughout, revered as one of the great prophets of the Muslim faith. In all three holy books, and in all three faiths, Abraham is revered as a father and a founder. The Bible calls him "our spiritual faith." Archaeology knows him as literally impossible to trace. History calls him the father of monotheism and originator of a great battle—spanning centuries—for pride and a little place: the land of Israel.
Abraham was born Abram, son of Terah, at the beginning of the second millennium BC in Ur, the capital of Mesopotamia at the height of its splendor as a highly developed ancient world. According to Jewish tradition, he was the son of an idol maker and smashed all of his fathers idols—except one—in a story that foreshadows his devotion to one God. The Koran tells of a time when Abram confronts his father about his idol worship and is condemned to burn in a furnace by King Nimrod of Babylon, but God protected him. His family left Ur—in modern day Iraq—to travel northwest along the trade route and the Euphrates River to the city of Haran. Abram settled down in Haran—in modern day Israel—with his family. He married Sarai and entered into a lifelong partnership with her. At the time, Haran—as well as all the neighboring cities and countries—was a land devoted to polytheism.
Abram was in Haran at age 75 when he got the call from God to leave his home and family behind and follow God into a strange land that He would give him. Time quoted Thomas Cahill, author of The Gifts of the Jews, calling the move "a complete departure from everything that has gone before in the evolution of culture and sensibility." Abram took his wife, his nephew, Lot, and his possessions and departed. Abram moved south into the land of Canaan, a land inhabited by a warrior people called the Canaanites. He settled temporarily in Shechem and Beth-el. God told Abraham his descendants would inherit the Canaanite land.
A famine in the land forced Abram and his people to move on to Egypt. Fearful that Pharoah would kill Abram for his beautiful wife, Abram asked Sarai to pretend she was his sister instead. Pharoah noted Sarai and took her as a concubine. For this, God struck the Pharoah with a plague and revealed Sarai's true identity. Angry with Abram, Pharoah returned Sarai and asked them to leave Egypt. Abram left with carts of wealth.
Renewal of Abraham's Calling
Abram returned to Canaan with Lot and Sarai, but Lot and Abram had a dispute over grazing land for their herds. Breaking with tradition, Abram allowed Lot—the younger of the two—to chose the land he would take. Lot chose the fertile plain to the east, and Abram took the hills to the west. Lot's land included the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. After Abram was again settled, God came to Abram and renewed his promise; that Abram would inherit for his descendants all the land he could see in every direction.
Lot moved to Sodom and was captured when local tribes attacked the city. Abram—who had grown wealthy and distinguished—armed his men and pursued Lot's kidnappers, regaining Lot and his possessions. Again God affirmed his promises to Abram, Abram now being well advanced in years and without offspring. God reaffirmed that He would give the land from the Nile to the Euphrates to Abram's descendants, but only after they had spent 400 years as slaves.
The First Son
With God having more than once affirmed his promise of numerous progeny to Abram, Sarai made a suggestion. In the ancient world, it was a custom to offer a substitute to bear a child to ensure the continuation of the family. Sarai offered her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar, to Abram to bear them a child. Abram consented, and at the age of 86 Hagar bore him a son, Ishmael.
The Second Son
Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, God once again appeared to Abram and renewed His covenant with Abram through the sign of circumcision and even expanded the promises: if Abram would "walk before [the LORD] and be upright" then God would make Abram the "father of a multitude of nations." God changed Abram's name to Abraham, which means "the father of many nations," and He changed Sarai's name to Sarah, meaning "princess." God also revealed that the promises would not come to Abraham through Ishmael, but through another son that would be born to Sarah in a years' time. Abraham laughed at this seemingly absurd promise, because Abraham was 99 at the time and Sarah was 89. When Abraham laughed, God said the boy's name would be Isaac, which means "he laughs."
God came again to speak to Abraham, in the guise of a traveler with companions (who were two angels). They were on their way to Sodom to destroy the city for its wickedness. Abraham boldly bargained with God on behalf of Lot, and because of Abraham's favor, God relented: if there were just ten righteous people in Sodom, God would not destroy it. During God's and the angels' visit, Abraham served them Bedouin hospitality: a goat, water, and other food. Later, God could not find even ten righteous in Sodom, but spared Lot's family by warning them to leave before he destroyed the city. Lot's wife was turned to a pillar of salt when she turned to view Sodom as she fled.
A year later, Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Sarah grew increasingly jealous of Hagar and Ishmael, and Abraham relented to allow Sarah to send them out into the wilderness. God saved Hagar and Ishmael and promised Ishmael would also father a great nation through 12 sons, assumed by tradition to be the 12 Arab tribes. According to Christian and Jewish scripture, God stipulated, though, that the covenant would flow through Isaac's line. In Talmudic tradition, Ishmael was later down-played, cast as a bully to younger brother Isaac. According to the Koran, Hagar and Ishmael made a journey to Mecca where they build a home and Abraham often visited them.
According to Judaism and Christianity, Isaac is the son whom the offering story is about. According to Islamic interpretation, Ishmael is the son in the story. Either way, Abraham was asked in a test of faith by God to take one of his sons onto Mount Moriah and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. At the time, children were often sacrificed as burnt offerings to a variety of deities. Abraham submitted, despite the fact that he "loved" his son. He took the son up on the mountain and prepared to sacrifice him. At the last moment, God told him to stay his hand and a ram appeared in the bushes. Abraham and his son slayed the ram as an offering, instead. God reiterated His promises to Abraham again, at this point, and made the covenant binding. Because Abraham had faith in the One God, God showed Himself different from other gods who desired human sacrifice and started His history with a people: the Jews or the Muslims. Christianity also lays claim to this story as the fore-shadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Death of a Patriarch
After Sarah died, two things happened. The Koran tells the story of Abraham and Ishmael making a journey to retrieve the Kaaba—Islam's great shrine—from the sands. Also, Abraham sent a servant to find a suitable wife for Isaac among Abraham's relatives. The servant returned with Rebekah and Rebekah married Isaac and had Esau and Jacob. The Jewish covenant would pass down through Jacob, who would have twelve sons who would become the twelve tribes of Israel. Likewise, Jacob's sons would include Joseph and Judah, and the birthright would continue through Joseph and the scepter through Judah, which is important for the establishing of Jesus Christ in the line of the covenant.
Abraham married Keturah and had six more sons. Abraham died at 175 years old and was buried in a cave in Hebron with Sarah, before he could inherit the land of Canaan. Both Isaac and Ishmael attended the funeral.
His Descendants Today
The five repetitions of daily Muslim prayer begin and end with reference to Abraham. Several rituals during the hajj—the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca—throw back to Abraham's life. The Jews feature the story of Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac during their New Year celebrations. Christian children around the world sing "Father Abraham had many sons… . And I am one of them and so are you." Pope John Paul II spent a lifetime dreaming of walking the steps of Abraham's journey and has a special place in his heart for the Biblical Abraham.
There has been a trend in the 1990s and 2000s to use Abraham as a figure and tool for reconciliation. Interfaith activists have scheduled Abraham lectures, Abraham speeches, and Abraham "salons" worldwide. Bruce Feiler's Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths was published to a welcome reception. David Van Biema in Time notes, "It is a staple premise of the interfaith movement, which has been picking at the problem since the late 1800s, that if Muslims, Christians, and Jews are ever to respect and understand one another, a key road leads through Abraham." But Biema also says, "He is like a father who has left a bitterly disputed will" and points out that Abraham's story has at its core a theme of exclusivity.
The Israeli settler movement is largely fueled by the concept that Abraham's covenant with God grants the Jewish people the Holy Land. Meanwhile, Christians misused passages on Abraham written by Paul in the New Testament to encourage anti-Semitism and possibly the Crusades. There are also discrepancies about which of his sons did what. The Muslims and Jews have two totally different stories on which son was exalted and inherited the birthright. The Koran also claims that Abraham was the first Muslim, not a Jewish prophet. Biema says, "His story constitutes a kind of multifaith scandal, a case study for monotheism's darker side." Tad Szulc says in National Geographic, "The important thing, we are told, is to assess the meaning and legacy of the ideas Abraham came to embody. He is most famously thought of as the father of monotheism… . The stories do, however, describe his hospitality and peaceableness and, most important, his faith and obedience to God."
Corduan, Winfried, Neighboring Faiths, InterVarsity Press, 1998.
Fieser, James and John Powers, Scriptures of the West, McGraw Hill, 1998.
Holy Bible, New Living translation, Tyndale House Publishers, 1996.
House, Paul R., Old Testament Survey, Broadman Press, 1992.
Qur'an, translation, Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, Inc., 1999.
Schechter, Solomon, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993.
Student Map Manual: Historical Geography of the Bible Lands, Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est., 1983.
Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, October 21, 2002.
Bible Review, April 2002.
Midstream, November 2001.
National Geographic, December 2001.
Time, September 30, 2002.
"Biography of Abraham," http://www.logon.org/_domain/abrahams-legacy.org/al-biog.html (February 10, 2003). □
In the aggadah, Abraham is seen as an ideal figure who kept the oral law even before it had been revealed. As the first to recognize God, he is the father of all proselytes.
In Christianity, Abraham is an exemplar of the efficacy of faith without law (Romans 4, Galatians 3. 6–9) and of faith as such (Hebrews 11. 8 ff.). In James 2. 20–4, his faith (in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac) is an illustration of justification by works. He was believed to have been one of the just liberated by Christ on his descent into hell. See also ABRAHAM'S BOSOM.
In Islam, his name (in the Qurʾān) is Ibrāhīm. He is seen as a prophet and the one who together with his son Ismāʿīl (Ishmael) restored the original monotheistic worship at the Kaʿba in Mecca. (Qurʾān 2.125). Ibrāhīm is considered as the original Muslim, who submitted to Allāh as a ḥanīf (monotheist) and muslim (3. 67). Islam is itself referred to as the ‘religion of Ibrāhīm’ (millat Ibrāhīm, 2. 130).
ABRAHAM , family of U.S. merchants. abraham abraham (1843–1911), son of a Bavarian immigrant, and Joseph Wechsler, himself an immigrant, established a dry goods store in Brooklyn, New York, in 1865. It became Brooklyn's largest department store, with six branches in metropolitan New York. On Wechsler's retirement in 1893 Abraham and the brothers Isidore and Nathan *Straus took over the firm, which they named Abraham & Straus. However, the *Straus' main interest remained focused on Macy's. Abraham's son-in-law, simon f. rothschild (1861–1936), succeeded to the presidency of A. & S. in 1925, and from 1930 to 1936 was chairman of its board. Another son-in-law, charles eduard blum (1863–1946), was president from 1930 to 1937 and board chairman from 1937 to 1946. In 1937 walter n. rothschild (1892–1960), a grandson of Abraham Abraham and son of Simon F. Rothschild, became A. & S. president and served as board chairman from 1955 to 1960. Subsequently A. & S. became a unit in the chain known as Federated Department Stores, Inc. Abraham's great-grandson, and son of Walter N. Rothschild, walter n. rothschild jr. (1920–2003), was president of A. & S. from 1963 to 1969. He served as chairman of the New York Urban Coalition from 1970 to 1973 and as chairman of the National Urban Coalition from 1973 to 1977. The family participated actively through all the generations in general and Jewish philanthropies but became remote from Jewish life.
[Hanns G. Reissner]
Abraham man a former or occasional inmate of the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem in London, licensed to beg on his discharge, or a similarly licensed beggar discharged from a charitable institution (perhaps in allusion to the biblical story of the beggar Lazarus in Luke 16). The term was current in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Abraham ★★½ 1994
Biblical epic chronicling the Old Testament story of humble shepherd Abraham (Harris), who's commanded by God to lead his family into the promised land of Canaan. Among his family's many trials will be God's command that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of faith and obedience. Filmed on location in Morocco with a commanding performance by Harris that somewhat redeems the film's dullness. 175m/C VHS, DVD . Richard Harris, Barbara Hershey, Maximilian Schell, Vittorio Gassman, Carolina Rosi, Gottfried John, Kevin McNally; D: Joseph Sargent; W: Robert McKee; C: Raffaele Mertes; M: Ennio Morricone, Marco Frisina. CABLE