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Abraham, Patriarch


Ancestor of the Israelites and neighboring peoples. One form of his name, Abram, regarded in Genesis as his earlier name is but a dialectic variant of the other form, Abraham, both meaning "Father [God] is exalted." However, by folk etymology, the form Abraham (Hebrew abrāhām ) is made to mean ab hămôn gôyīm, "Father of a multitude of nations" (Gn 17.5).

Life. Although the formerly common identification of Amraphel (Gn 14.1) with hammurabi is now regarded as very improbable, Abraham can nevertheless be considered roughly contemporaneous with this Babylonian king (18th century b.c.); the background of the Genesis stories of the Biblical patriarchs agrees very well with the known conditions of northern Mesopotamia in the first half of the 2d millennium b.c. Abraham was apparently one of the seminomads of amorrite stock who migrated from upper Mesopotamia into Syria and Canaan between 1900 and 1700 b.c. According to the traditions recorded by the yahwist and the elohist, his home was in Haran of Aram Naharaim (northern Mesopotamia). The later Pentateuchal priestly writers locate his original home in "Ur of the Chaldees" in southern Mesopotamia (Gn 11.28, 31; 12.45; 15.7; 24.10; Jos 24.2; Neh 9.7). The motive for Abraham's migration was primarily religious, leaving Mesopotamia at Yahweh's command (Gn 12.14), to be free from its crass polytheism (Jdt 5.69), but political and economic reasons may also have influenced his decision to migrate. In Gn 14.13 Abraham is called "the Hebrew" (hāibrî ), which later generations may have taken to mean "the descendant of Eber" (ēber ), (cf. Gn 11.1426), but which more likely originally meant "the immigrant" (see habiru).

Biblical genealogies relate Abraham to many Near Eastern peoples: through his brother Nahor to the aramaeans; through his son Ishmael to the Ishmaelites (Gn 16; 21.921; 25.1218); through his son Isaac and his grandson jacob (Israel) to the Israelites; through his other grandson Esau to the edomites (Gn 36); through his second wife Cetura to several Arabic tribes (Gn 25.14); and through his nephew Lot to the moabites and Ammonites (Gn 19.3038). Tradition associated Abraham with several places and sacred trees in Canaan: shechem and its sacred terebinth of More (Gn 12.6), bethel and its altar (12.8), Hebron and its terebinths of Mamre (13.18), and Beersheba and its tamarisk (21.33). Besides his wanderings in Canaan, he also went to Gerar in the western Negeb, according to the Elohist (Gn 20), and to Egypt, according to the Yahwist (Gn 12.1020). According to Gn 25.711, Abraham died in his 175th year and was buried in the cave of Machphela, near Hebron.

Abraham in Salvation History. This patriarch marks a significant point in the history of salvation. He is the first to worship the true God. Because of Yahweh's covenant with him, which included the promise that in him all the nations of the earth should be blessed and of which the sign was circumcision, descent from Abraham was considered a necessary condition for belonging to the people of God. Abraham's faith in God's promise of innumerable descendants survived a severe test when God commanded him to sacrifice his only son Isaac (Gn 22). "Abram believed the Lord, who credited the act to him as justice" (Gn 15.6). St. Paul cites these words (Rom 4.3, 9, 22; Gal 3.6) to show that it is not carnal descent or circumcision, but faith like that of Abraham that makes men the true descendants of Abraham (Rom 4; Heb 11.1719). Because they are his offspring, the blessed after death recline at the messianic banquet "in Abraham's bosom" (Lk 16.2223).

Iconography. Perhaps the most frequently reproduced theme from the life of Abraham is that of his impending sacrifice of Isaac. This is found as early as the Synagogue of dura-europos (c. a.d. 245) and in the Christian catacombs. As a type of the sacrifice of Christ, this scene became increasingly popular in the Middle Ages. It was also interpreted as a type of the Eucharist, as was likewise the frequently depicted encounter of Abraham with Melchizedek (Gn 14.18), e.g., in St. Mary Major in Rome. Another commonly portrayed scene was that of the visit to Abraham of three angels, sometimes represented as the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity (Gn 18). Various motifs from Abraham's life were utilized by Titian, Tintoretto, Rembrandt, and Rubens.

Bibliography: m. noth, A History of Pentateuchal Traditions (Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1972). j. van seters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven 1975). b.vawter, On Genesis (Garden City NY 1977). c. westermann, Genesis, 111, Genesis 1236, Genesis 3750 (Minneapolis 198486).

[e. martin]

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