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Encyclopedia of The Bible – Abraham

ABRAHAM ā brə’ hăm (אַבְרָהָ֤ם). The primary source of Abraham is the narrative account given in Genesis 11:26-25:18. Significant is the fact that throughout the rest of the OT he is mentioned by name more than forty times. The number of references by NT writers exceeds seventy. Numerous archeological discoveries, esp. during the last cent., have provided a wealth of material for the understanding of the cultural and historical background of the times in which Abraham lived. The etymology of the name of Abram is uncertain but the lengthened name Abraham bears the explanation “father of multitudes” (Gen 17:5).

1. The life of Abraham

2. The geographical context

3. Chronology

4. Archeology

5. Religion of Abraham

6. Significance

1. The life of Abraham. Ur in Chaldees, most generally identified as modern Tell el-Muqayyar, located nine m. W of Nasiriyeh on the Euphrates River in S Iraq, was the birthplace of Abram the son of Terah a descendant of Shem. Migrating approximately 600 m. N and W from Ur, Terah accompanied by his family settled in Haran located on the Balikh tributary of the Euphrates (11:26-32).

At the age of seventy-five Abram, with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and all their possessions, departed in response to God’s call for the land of Canaan—another 400 m. Stopping en route at Shechem and Bethel, Abram settled in the Negeb or S country, but due to a prevailing famine he continued into Egypt. When Sarai because of her beauty unduly attracted the interest of Pharaoh, divinely-sent plagues brought about the release of Abram and Sarai. After this crisis Abram returned to the Negeb (12:1-20).

Moving to the Bethel region Abram and Lot experienced such an increase in wealth that a separation seemed expedient. Abram magnanimously offered Lot the choice of territory with the result that Lot relocated in the sinful Jordan valley in the city of Sodom. As Abram settled in the Hebron area he received the divine promise of the land of Canaan for himself and his descendants who would be countless in number (13:1-18). When Lot and the kings of the Jordan valley had the misfortune of being taken captive by invaders from the N, Abram and his allies overtook them at Dan, routing them beyond Damascus to rescue the captives. Upon his return Abram refused to accept rewards, but gave tithes to Melchizedek who was priest of the Most High God and king of Salem (14:1-24).

Although Eliezer of Damascus had been designated as his heir, Abram responded with faith when God assured him of a Son whose descendants would be as numberless as the stars and would become possessors of the land of Canaan. After a special sacrifice came the further revelation predicting Israel’s Egyp. enslavement and divine deliverance. God’s covenant with Abram provided assurance of ultimate possession of the Promised Land for his posterity (15:1-21).

After a ten-year residence in Canaan without visible prospects of having a son Sarai impatiently suggested that an heir could be procured for Abram through their Egyp. handmaid Hagar. Pregnant with Ishmael Hagar mocked Sarai’s barrenness with the consequence of being ostracized to the wilderness where an angel of the Lord came to her rescue. Upon her return she bore Ishmael to Abram when he was eighty-six years of age.

Significant was God’s revelation to Abram thirteen years later. With the covenant restated indicating that nations and kings would be heirs to these everlasting promises, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham signifying that he was to be the father of a multitude of nations. Circumcision was established as the sign of the everlasting covenant. With the divine promise of Isaac’s birth Sarai’s name was changed to Sarah. Subsequent to this divine revelation Abraham instituted the rite of circumcision in his household (17:1-27).

Living in the Mamre community Abraham and Sarah had the prospect of Isaac’s birth confirmed through another theophany. When Abraham was made aware of God’s imminent judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah, he made intercession for Lot who subsequently was rescued with his two daughters. From the plains of Mamre Abraham witnessed the terrible destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot escaped to Zoar where, through incest, his daughters gave birth to Moab and Ammon whose descendants were known as Moabites and Ammonites (18:1-19:38).

Subsequently Abraham migrated to Kadesh and Gerar where the local King Abimelech was divinely warned not to defile Sarah, but rather ask Abraham as a prophet to intercede for him. With his life spared Abimelech greatly increased Abraham’s wealth (20:1-18).

The promised heir Isaac was born to Abraham and Sarah when the former was 100 years old. Although contrary to custom Abraham was divinely encouraged to expel Hagar with her son Ishmael, who exerted an unfavorable influence on Isaac. This he did reluctantly. Miraculously, Hagar and her son were spared as they migrated to the wilderness of Paran with the assurance that Ishmael would become a great nation. After this Abraham made a treaty with Abimelech to secure rights to Beersheba as his dwelling place (21:1-34).

Severe and crucial was the crisis when it was divinely revealed to Abraham that he should sacrifice his only son Isaac. In obedience Abraham carried out the command to the point of actual sacrifice in the land of Moriah when a substitute ram offering was provided. Subsequently the covenantal promise was again confirmed. When Sarah died Abraham purchased a field with the cave of Machpelah in the Hebron area as a family burial place (22:1-23:20).

When Isaac was forty years old Abraham sent his servant Eliezer to the city of Nahor in Mesopotamia to secure Rebekah, the daughter of Laban, as a wife for Isaac. Abraham designated Isaac as the sole heir to his possessions and the divinely revealed covenantal promise. Other sons born to Abraham were endowed with gifts and sent eastward by Abraham before his death. When Abraham died at the age of 175 he was buried by his sons Isaac and Ishmael in the cave of Machpelah (24:1-25:18).

2. The geographical context. The movements of Abraham extend from the Persian Gulf through the Fertile Crescent to the river Nile in Egypt with his primary place of residence being in the land of Canaan. It was common during Abrahamic times for merchant caravans, envoys and others to travel back and forth to Egypt and Mesopotamia. From lit. of the early part of the second millennium b.c., it is evident that others sent for brides to distant points making marriage arrangements as Abraham did for his son Isaac (Cf. Kenneth A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and the Old Testament, p. 50).

The geographical places identified with Abraham in the patriarchal records are known from archeological attestation to have been inhabited at that time. The city of Ur on the lower Euphrates River was a large population center, and has yielded extensive information in the royal tombs which were excavated under the direction of Sir Leonard Wooley and the sponsorship of the British Museum and the museum of Pennsylvania University. Although no direct evidence of Abraham’s residence is available, it is significant that the city of Ur reflects a long history preceding Abraham’s time, possessing an elaborate system of writing, educational facilities, mathematical calculations, business and religious records, and art. This points to the fact that Ur may have been one of the largest and wealthiest cities in the Tigris-Euphrates area when Abraham emigrated northward to Haran.

The vicinity of Hebron, about nineteen m. S of Jerusalem, seems to have been a favorite place for Abraham to live. This city, known to the patriarchs as Kiriath-arba, apparently was settled at an early period according to the American Expedition (1964) which discovered a mud brick wall on bedrock dating back to about 3000 b.c. The Biblical record frequently refers to this Hebron area as Mamre.

Beersheba, located about forty-eight m. SW of Jerusalem at a point approximately midway between the Mediterranean Sea and the southern end of the Dead Sea, marks the northern border of the Negeb, meaning “dry.” Numerous wells were located here which made it possible for Abraham and his descendants to settle in this area with their flocks and herds. The road identified in the Scriptures as “The way to Shur” passed through Beersheba from the Judean highlands down toward Egypt.

Gerar (21:32, 34) is located in the “land of the Philistines.” Although Tell Jamneh, about eight m. S of Gaza, was thought to be the site of ancient Gerar by W. J. Phythian-Adams (1922) and W. M. Flinders Petrie (1927), recent reconsiderations by Y. Aharoni have pointed to Tell Abu Hureira. This site, located about eleven m. SE of Gaza, seems to offer surface potsherd evidence of habitation since Calcolithic times with a prosperous period in the Middle Bronze age when the patriarchs lived. In the Genesis account the relations between Abraham and Isaac and Abimelech of Gerar reflect their mutual interests in the wells at Beersheba. Although the Philistines may not have had a dominating influence in this area before the 12th cent. b.c., they had trading centers in southwestern Pal. as early as patriarchal times.

Sodom and Gomorrah are places of unique interest in the Biblical account of Abraham’s life. These are identified as “cities of the Plain” eastward of the Bethel-Hebron axis in Pal. (ch. 13), where Lot settled after parting with Abraham. According to W. F. Albright it seems probable that these cities were located in the shallow area of the southern part of the Dead Sea. This apparently was a very fertile plain where extensive settlements were located about 2000 b.c. The ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah likely are submerged in the Dead Sea.

3. Chronology. A correlation of external historical knowledge and the Genesis account points approximately to the 19th cent. b.c. as a reasonable date for Abraham. A sharp decrease in the density population estimate for this period is linked by some scholars with the destructive campaign mentioned in Genesis 14. The names of these kings are typical of the Old Babylonian period (2000-1700 b.c.) although it seems improbable that Amraphel is Hammurabi. The power alliances in which four kings fight against five (ch. 14) is typical of political and military coalitions for this particular period. After this, coalitions usually consisted of larger numbers of kings.

The personal names of Abraham and the other patriarchs are similar to names occurring in the lit. from the 19th to the 17th centuries. Seasonal occupation of the Negeb is reflected in the Genesis narrative as well as in the archeological data from about 2100-1800 b.c. This was not the situation for the preceding millennium nor for the eight centuries following this period.

Some scholars date Abraham centuries later. This late dating is delineated by H. H. Rowley (From Joseph to Joshua, London: Oxford University Press [1950]) and Cyrus H. Gordon (Introduction to Old Testament Times, Ventnor Publishers: Ventnor, N. J., [1953]) but their assumption that the genealogical references in the scriptural accounts provide a basis for calculating a complete chronology is tenuous.

The chronology for Abraham is directly related to the date for the Exodus which has a variable factor of approximately two centuries—c. 1450-1250 b.c. If Abraham lived approximately 600 years before the Exodus the earliest date for his entrance into Canaan would be about 2085 b.c. or later, at which time he was seventy-five years of age. (For discussion of the dating for the Exodus and the time of the patriarchs see Merrill F. Unger, Archaeology and the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Zondervan [1954], chs. IX and XII). In view of these tenable considerations in the chronology of this early period it is reasonable to date Abraham at approximately 2000-1900 b.c.

4. Archeology. Archeological discoveries have shed considerable light upon the Abrahamic account (chs. 12-25). The laws and customs as practiced in the world and age in which Abraham lived have provided insight into his behavior pattern described in the Bible.

Extensive inheritance laws from the excavations at Nuzu on the Tigris River offer an explanation for Abraham’s anxiety about making provisions for an heir. According to these laws a man could adopt a servant or slave as his legal heir if he did not have a son. In such an arrangement this adopted son would care for his master, provide proper burial, inherit the property and continue the family name. Abraham was simply conforming to contemporary customs and practices when he was considering Eliezer as his heir (15:2-4). Should a son be born after such an arrangement had been made it normally would have been voided in favor of the new heir.

Another way of providing an heir was through a slave-wife. When childless Sarah secured Ishmael through Hagar it was natural for Abraham to consider him to be the legal heir (ch. 16). Humanly speaking, for the next thirteen years it seemed probable that Ishmael would be the heir to all that Abraham had. Although Abraham had been informed by God that Eliezer was not his heir but that he would have a son, it was not until Ishmael was about thirteen years old that the promise to Abraham was given more specifically. A son was to be born to Abraham and Sarah (ch. 17). At this time the rite of circumcision was instituted as a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. Even though circumcision was practiced by many people of antiquity, for Abraham and his offspring it became a mark of identity in this covenant relationship.

The law code of Hammurabi made provisions that a slave-wife or handmaid who bore a child to her owner did not take the place of the childless wife in the family household. The latter however, had no right to dismiss the slave-wife and her child. When Hagar, having acted in a spirit of contempt, was mistreated by Sarah, she fled toward Shur on the road leading to Egypt. After she was divinely urged to submit herself to Sarah she returned to Abraham’s home where Ishmael was born (ch. 16). Apparently Abraham had no legal right according to contemporary customs to expel Hagar and her son, and did so only after he was divinely commanded to do so (21:12-21). With it came the divine assurance that out of Ishmael God would make a great nation.

The Hitt. law code seems to shed some light on the real estate purchase by Abraham when he secured a burial plot from Ephron (ch. 23). Although this law code, discovered at the ancient Hitt. capital of Boghazkoy in Asia Minor, dates back to about the 14th cent. b.c., it is generally recognized that it embodies the practices of the Hittites as far back as the 19th cent. b.c. According to these laws certain feudal obligations were included when an entire piece of land was sold, which was not the case when only part of the land changed ownership. Although Abraham wanted to buy only the cave, the stipulation by Ephron was that the entire property be sold, and likely transferred the responsibility of certain feudal services to Abraham. Trees on this property also were indicated in this real estate transaction as was usually done in Hitt. business documents (23:17f.).

5. Religion of Abraham. Although Abraham came from a family of idol worshipers (Josh 24:2, 14), he responded to God’s command to migrate to the land of Canaan. The fact that God revealed Himself to Abraham is repeatedly stated in the Genesis account, but the means by which God made Himself known is not always indicated. Stephen spoke specifically of God’s initial manifestation to Abraham to which the latter obediently complied in leaving his family in order to settle in the land of Canaan (Acts 7:2).

Occasionally the manner of revelation is indicated to some extent. God “appeared” to Abraham communicating to him the promise that the land of Canaan would be given to his descendants (Gen 12:7). God’s presence was evident in a form of fire through which the sacrifice was consumed (15:17). God “appeared” to enlarge Abraham’s knowledge of the covenant and then “went up from Abraham” (17:1, 22). The most explicit theophany was portrayed when three men—One of whom was God—were entertained by Abraham (18:1ff.). In the course of these appearances Abraham and God spoke face to face. Subsequently God was often identified as the God who appeared to Abraham.

Divine messages also were revealed through the “angel of the Lord.” Hagar equated this messenger with God (16:1-14). Abraham likewise acknowledged the “angel of the Lord” as revealing God’s command to him (22:1-19).

Abraham’s response to the divine revelation resulted in an intimate relationship between Abraham and God. Initially he expressed his faith and confidence in God by obedience in migrating to Canaan at the cost of separation from his family. Through the altar he erected at various places of residence, he gave public witness to the fact that he was committed to the worship of God in the midst of an idolatrous environment. Progressively his comprehensive knowledge of God was enlarged as God made known to him more details concerning the future plans for Abraham’s descendants. Characteristic of Abraham was the fact that “he believed the Lord,” and this was reckoned to him for righteousness (Gen 15:6). Through Abraham’s faith, obedience and communion, this divine-human relationship between him and God became so unique that he was later known as “the friend of God” (Jas 2:23). (Cf. also Isa 41:8 and 2 Chron 20:7.)

Prayer was a vital and normal part of Abraham’s relationship with God. This was closely associated with his sacrifice (Gen 12:8 and 13:4), which he offered on the altars he erected in various places throughout Canaan. Through prayer Abraham expressed his practical concerns and questions about God’s promises to him (15:4). When Abraham subsequently wished that Ishmael might be accepted as the promised seed, God answered his prayer by another confirmation that the promised son would be born in due time to him and Sarah (17:19).

The sublimity of intercessory prayer is exemplified in Abraham’s appeal when God shared with him the solemn fact that divine judgment was about to be rendered upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham reasoned on the ground that God as judge of all the earth would do right. Even though the cities were destroyed God spared the few righteous people who were living there.

The efficacy of prayer is apparent in Abraham’s relationship with Abimelech. The latter is divinely assured that his life will be preserved through the intercessory prayer of Abraham (20:7).

Divine guidance through prayer is delineated in the experience of Abraham’s servant (ch. 24). In all likelihood this servant reflects Abraham’s attitude of expecting God’s guidance in the developing circumstances as a bride was secured for Isaac. In prayer he expressed his dependence upon God and thankfully acknowledged that God had prospered him as the contacts in Mesopotamia unfolded favorably.

Abraham had a perspective of God that was comprehensive and practical. To him God was “the Lord God Most High, maker of heaven and earth” (14:22), or “the Lord...of heaven” (24:7). The omnipotence of this God was a practical reality in Abraham’s life as the laws of nature were overruled in the provision of the promised heir (18:13, 14). When endangered by Pharaoh in the land of Egypt God’s power was manifested in Abraham’s deliverance.

God’s omniscience likewise was apparent in the divine assurance of a son to Abraham and Sarah years before Isaac was born. In the course of twenty-five years after Abraham had initially obeyed God by migrating to Canaan, this promise of Isaac’s birth was gradually unfolded to Abraham. The sinfulness of Sodom and Gomorrah were likewise known to God (18:20). The judgment upon these cities made Abraham conscious anew of the fact that a just and righteous God could not permit such wickedness to continue indefinitely. Although the iniquity of the Amorite was not yet full in Abraham’s time (15:16), the time for judgment upon these cities had come. Even for these cities mercy preceded judgment because righteous Lot lived among these people for some time. His life undoubtedly reflected the righteousness and holiness of God but his last appeal to some of the residents was not heeded so that only Lot and his family were rescued before God’s judgment was executed.

God’s love, provision, purpose, and guidance were constantly evident in Abraham’s life. In the sixfold promise given to Abraham when God called him (12:2, 3), Abraham was made aware of the fact that God’s love would abound toward him in blessing so that his descendants would constitute a great nation and ultimately bring blessing to all nations of the earth. Being conscious of God’s plan and purpose for him Abraham magnanimously gave Lot the first choice in land when it was necessary for them to separate (13:8). Likewise he refused to accept a reward from the king of Sodom and gave testimony to the fact that his God is “the possessor of heaven and earth” (14:22). Furthermore Abraham gave the tithe to Melchizedek, the priest of the Most High God (14:18-20).

Abraham was a God-fearing person (22:12). His love, reverence, and respect for God were evident in his attitude of faith, obedience, and wholehearted commitment to God even to the point of sacrificing his only son. Abraham’s standard of living in morals and ethics was to reflect the fact that he was serving an “Almighty God” (17:1). It was this God that gave witness concerning Abraham, “I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and judgment; that the Lord may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him” (18:19 KJV).

6. Significance. Abraham occupied a significant and unique place throughout the world for nearly four millenniums. For the Jews he is the father of the nation of Israel. In the Islamic world he is regarded in the long calendar of accepted prophets as second only to Mohammed himself. The Koran contains 188 references to Abraham. In the Christian world Abraham is recognized as one of the greatest men of faith of all times.

Israelites were frequently identified as the seed of Abraham. Throughout OT times the fact that Abraham was the father from whom the chosen people descended is significantly emphasized (Isa 51:2; Ezek 33:24). Much was made of the fact that God chose Abraham (Neh 9:7), redeemed him (Isa 29:22), and peculiarly blessed him (Mic 7:20).

The divine revelation God made to Abraham is of fundamental importance in Israel’s history. It was the God of Abraham who identified Himself to Moses and the Israelites in Egyp. bondage (Exod 2:24-6:8). Subsequently after Israel was redeemed out of Egypt Moses appealed for mercy on the basis of God’s covenant with Abraham (32:13). Throughout Deuteronomy Moses reminds the Israelites that God loved their fathers and made a covenant with them. Moses appeals to them to obey so that God can fulfill toward them the covenant established with Abraham (Deut 1:8; 6:10; 9:5, 27, 28; 29:13; 30:20). Canaan, the land the Israelites are about to possess, is identified as the land God promised to Abraham (34:4).

David appealed to the God of Abraham in his prayer for Solomon (1 Chron 29:18). So did Jehoshaphat with the consciousness that his people were the seed of Abraham, the friend of God (2 Chron 20:7). Elijah in challenging idolatrous Baalism identified Israel’s God as the God of Abraham (1 Kings 18:36). In the days of Jehoahaz God was gracious and compassionate toward Israel, sparing them from capitulation to the Syrian King Hazael, because of His covenant with Abraham (2 Kings 13:23).

Psalmists in 47:9 and 105:6, 9, 42, Isaiah in 29:22; 41:8; 51:2; 63:16, Jeremiah in 33:26, Ezekiel in Ezk 33:24, and Micah in Mic 7:20 reflect a consciousness of the importance of Abraham as their father with whom God had established a covenant and to whom God had manifested His mercy in a particular manner.

In the apocryphal lit. and later writings Abraham is also significantly mentioned as a great prophet and the recipient of the divine revelation through which the covenant was established. Cf. [http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Sir.44.19-Sir.44.21 Ecclus. 44:19-21]; Bereshith Rabba; Pirqe Aboth 5:4; and Josephus, Antiq. 1:7-8. Various legends of Abraham’s life in Chaldea have been noted in the Book of Judith and Josephus. According to the Talmud Abraham was a first-rate astronomer or astrologer and shared his wisdom as he instructed kings of the E and the W.

In the Christian world Abraham is highly esteemed as a great man of faith. Genealogically Jesus is identified as the son of Abraham (Matt 1:1). Jesus in His teaching and dialogues repeatedly acknowledged the significance of the Jews as being Abraham’s seed but at the same time asserted that He was greater than Abraham. (Cf. Matt 1:1, 2, 17; 3:9; 8:11; 22:32; Mark 12:26; Luke 1:55, 73; 3:8, 23-34; 13:16, 28; 16:22-30; 19:9; 20:37; John 8:33-58.)

In the apostolic preaching much is made of Abraham in appealing to the Jews (Acts 3:13, 25; 7:2-32; 13:26). Paul used Abraham as the outstanding example of a man who was justified by faith (Rom 4:1-16). In his epistle to the Galatians Paul asserts that those who are Christ’s are indeed the seed of Abraham who responded with faith to the revelation and promises of God. The author of Hebrews points to Abraham as the ancestor of the Levitical priesthood (Heb 7:5), and allots primary consideration to Abraham as a man of faith in his relationship with God and the promises made to him.

Since NT times Abraham has been repeatedly a point of reference when faith and obedience in relationship to God have been evaluated.

Bibliography J. O. Dykes, Abraham the Friend of God (1877); C. Gordon, Recent Discovery and the Patriarchal Age (1940); H. H. Rowley, Recent Discovery and the Patriarchal Age (1949); W. F. Albright, “The Biblical Period,” The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion, Louis Finkelstein, ed. (1949); A. Pieters, Notes on Old Testament History (1950); M. R. Lehman, “Abraham’s Purchase of Machpelah and Hittite Law,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 129 (Feb., 1953); G. E. Wright, Biblical Archaeology (1957); J. Finegan, Light From the Ancient Past (1959); C. A. Pfeiffer, The Patriarchal Age (1961); K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (1966).