Who was Abraham?
Abraham is the father of the Hebrew people or the nation of Israel, according to Genesis.
The Name, Abraham
In the Old Testament, when applied, to the patriarch, the name appears as Heb: 'abhram, up to Gen 17:5; thereafter always as Heb: 'abhraham. Two other persons are named Heb: 'abhiram.
Until this latest discovery of the apparently full, historical form of the Babylonian equivalent, the best that could be done with the etymology was to make the first constituent "father of" (construct -i rather than suffix -i), and the second constituent "Ram," a proper name or an abbreviation of a name. Some were inclined rather to concede that the second element was a mystery, like the second element in the majority of names beginning with Heb: 'abh and Heb: 'ach, "father" and "brother."
While the name is thus not "Hebrew" in origin, it made itself thoroughly at home among the Hebrews, and to their ears conveyed associations quite different from its etymological signification. "Popular etymology" here as so often doubtless led the Hebrew to hear in Heb: 'abh-ram, "exalted father," a designation consonant with the patriarch's national and religious significance. In the form 'abh-raham his ear caught the echo of some root (perhaps r-h-m; compare Arabic ruham, "multitude") still more suggestive of the patriarch's extensive progeny, the reason ("for") that accompanies the change of name Gen 17:5 being intended only as a verbal echo of the sense in the sound.
This longer and commoner form is possibly a dialectical variation of the shorter form, a variation for which there are analogies in comparative Semitic grammar. It is, however, possible also that the two forms are different names, and that Heb: 'abh-raham is etymologically, and not merely by association of sound, "father of a multitude" (as above). (Another theory, based on South-Arabic orthography, in Hommel, Altisraelitische Ueberlieferung, 177.)
The Kindred of Abraham
Gen 11:27, which introduces Abraham, contains the heading, "These are the generations of Terah." All the story of Abraham is contained within the section of Genesis so entitled. Through Terah Abraham's ancestry is traced back to Shem, and he is thus related to Mesopotamian and Arabian families that belonged to the "Semitic" race. He is further connected with this race geographically by his birthplace, which is given as Heb: 'ur-kasdim (see &UR), and by the place of his pre-Canaanitish residence, Haran in the Aramean region.
The purely Semitic ancestry of his descendants through Isaac is indicated by his marriage with his own half-sister (Gen 20:12), and still further emphasized by the choice for his daughter-in-law of Rebekah, descended from both of his brothers, Nahor and Haran (Gen 11:29; 22:22 f). Both the beginning and the end of the residence in Haran are left chronologically undetermined, for the new beginning of the narrative at Gen 12:1 is not intended by the writer to indicate chronological sequence, though it has been so understood, e.g. by Stephen (Acts 7:4).
All that is definite in point of time is that an Aramean period of residence intervened between the Babylonian origin and the Palestinian career of Abraham. It is left to a comparison of the Biblical data with one another and with the data of archaeology, to fix the opening of Abraham's career in Palestine not far from the middle of the 20th century BC.
The Career of Abraham
The Period of Wandering
Abraham, endowed with Yahweh's promise of limitless blessing, leaves Haran with Lot his nephew and all their establishment, and enters Canaan.
Successive stages of the slow journey southward are indicated by the mention of Shechem, Bethel and the Negeb (South-country). Driven by famine into Egypt, Abraham finds hospitable reception, though at the price of his wife's honor, whom the Pharaoh treats in a manner characteristic of an Egyptian monarch. (Gressmann, op. cit., quotes from Meyer, Geschichte des Alterthums, 12, 142, the passage from a magic formula in the pyramid of Unas, a Pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty: "Then he (namely, the Pharaoh) takes away the wives from their husbands whither he will if desire seize his heart.")
Retracing the path to Canaan with an augmented train, at Bethel Abraham and Lot find it necessary to part company. Lot and his dependents choose for residence the great Jordan Depression; Abraham follows the backbone of the land southward to Hebron, where he settles, not in the city, but before its gates "by the great trees" (Septuagint sing., "oak") of Mamre.
The Period of Residence at Hebron
Affiliation between Abraham and the local chieftains is strengthened by a brief campaign, in which all unite their available forces for the rescue of Lot from an Elamite king and his confederates from Babylonia. The pursuit leads them as far as the Lebanon region.
On the return they are met by Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of Heb: 'el `elyon, and blessed by him in his priestly capacity, which Abraham recognizes by presenting him with a tithe of the spoils. Abraham's anxiety for a son to be the bearer of the divine promises conferred upon a "seed" yet unborn should have been relieved by the solemn renewal thereof in a formal covenant, with precise specifications of God's gracious purpose.
But human desire cannot wait upon divine wisdom, and the Egyptian woman Hagar bears to Abraham a son, Ishmael, whose existence from its inception proves a source of moral evil within the patriarchal household. The sign of circumcision and the change of names are given in confirmation of the covenant still unrealized, together with specification of the time and the person that should begin its realization.
The theophany that symbolized outwardly this climax of the Divine favor serves also for an intercessory colloquy, in which Abraham is granted the deliverance of Lot in the impending overthrow of Sodom. Lot and his family, saved thus by human fidelity and Divine clemency, exhibit in the moral traits shown in their escape and subsequent life the degeneration naturally to be expected from their corrupt environment. Moabites and Ammonites are traced in their origin to these cousins of Jacob and Esau.
The Period of Residence in the Negeb
Removal to the South-country did not mean permanent residence in a single spot, but rather a succession of more or less temporary resting-places. The first of these was in the district of Gerar, with whose king, Abimelech, Abraham and his wife had an experience similar to the earlier one with the Pharaoh. The birth of Isaac was followed by the expulsion of Ishmael and his mother, and the sealing of peaceful relations with the neighbors by covenant at Beersheba.
Even the birth of Isaac, however, did not end the discipline of Abraham's faith in the promise, for a Divine command to sacrifice the life of this son was accepted bona fide, and only the sudden interposition of a Divine prohibition prevented its obedient execution. The death of Sarah became the occasion for Abraham's acquisition of the first permanent holding of Palestine soil, the nucleus of his promised inheritance, and at the same time suggested the probable approach of his own death.
This thought led to immediate provision for a future seed to inherit through Isaac, a provision realized in Isaac's marriage with Rebekah, grand-daughter of Abraham's brother Nahor and of Milcah the sister of Lot. But a numerous progeny not associated with the promise grew up in Abraham's household, children of Keturah, a woman who appears to have had the rank of wife after Sarah's death, and of other women unnamed, who were his concubines. Though this last period was passed in the Negeb, Abraham was interred at Hebron in his purchased possession, the spot with which Semitic tradition has continued to associate him to this day.
The Conditions of Abraham's Life
The life of Abraham in its outward features may be considered under the following topics: economic, social, political and cultural conditions.
Abraham's manner of life may best be described by the adjective "semi-nomadic," and illustrated by the somewhat similar conditions prevailing today in those border-communities of the East that fringe the Syrian and Arabian deserts. Residence is in tents, wealth consists of flocks, herds and slaves, and there is no ownership of ground, only at most a proprietorship in well or tomb.
All this in common with the nomad. But there is a relative, or rather, intermittent fixity of habitation, unlike the pure Bedouin, a limited amount of agriculture, and finally a sense of divergence from the Ishmael type--all of which tend to assimilate the seminomadic Abraham to the fixed Canaanitish population about him. As might naturally be expected, such a condition is an unstable equilibrium, which tends, in the family of Abraham as in the history of all border-tribes of the desert, to settle back one way or the other, now into the city-life of Lot, now into the desert-life of Ishmael.
The head of a family, under these conditions, becomes at the same time the chief of a tribe, that live together under patriarchal rule though they by no means share without exception the tie of kinship. The family relations depicted in Gen conform to and are illuminated by the social features of Code of Hammurabi. (See K. D. Macmillan, article "Marriage among the Early Babylonians and Hebrews," Princeton Theological Review, April, 1908.) There is one legal wife, Sarah, who, because persistently childless, obtains the coveted offspring by giving her own maid to Abraham for that purpose (compare Code of Hammurabi, sections 144, 146).
The son thus borne, Ishmael, is Abraham's legal son and heir. When Isaac is later borne by Sarah, the elder son is disinherited by divine command (Gen 21:10-12) against Abraham's wish which represented the prevailing law and custom (Code of Hammurabi, sections 168 f). The "maid-servants" mentioned in the inventories of Abraham's wealth (Gen 12:16; 24:35) doubtless furnished the "concubines" mentioned in Gen 25:6 as having borne sons to him. Both mothers and children were slaves, but had the right to freedom, though not to inheritance, on the death of the father (Code of Hammurabi, section 171).
After Sarah's death another woman seems to have succeeded to the position of legal wife, though if so the sons she bore were disinherited like Ishmael (Gen 25:5). In addition to the children so begotten by Abraham the "men of his house" (Gen 17:27) consisted of two classes, the "home-born" slaves (Gen 14:14; 17:12 f,23,27) and the "purchased" slaves (ibid.). The extent of the patriarchal tribe may be surmised from the number (318) of men among them capable of bearing arms, near the beginning of Abraham's career, yet after his separation from Lot, and recruited seemingly from the "home-born" class exclusively (Gen 14:14).
Over this entire establishment Abraham ruled with a power more, rather than less, absolute than that exhibited in detail in the Code of Hammurabi: more absolute, because Abraham was independent of any permanent superior authority, and so combined in his own person the powers of the Babylonian paterfamilias and of the Canaanite city-king. Social relations outside of the family-tribe may best be considered under the next heading.
It is natural that the chieftain of so considerable an organism should appear an attractive ally and a formidable foe to any of the smaller political units of his environment. That Canaan was at the time composed of just such inconsiderable units, namely, city-states with petty kings, and scattered fragments of older populations, is abundantly clear from the Biblical tradition and verified from other sources. Egypt was the only great power with which Abraham came into political contact after leaving the East.
In the section of Genesis which describes this contact with the Pharaoh Abraham is suitably represented as playing no political role, but as profiting by his stay in Egypt only through an incidental social relation: when this terminates he is promptly ejected. The role of conqueror of Chedorlaomer, the Elamite invader, would be quite out of keeping with Abraham's political status elsewhere, if we were compelled by the narrative in Gen 14 to suppose a pitched battle between the forces of Abraham and those of the united Babylonian armies.
What that chapter requires is in fact no more than a midnight surprise, by Abraham's band (including the forces of confederate chieftains), of a rear-guard or baggage-train of the Babylonians inadequately manned and picketed ("Slaughter" is quite too strong a rendering of the original hakkoth, "smiting," 14:17) Respect shown Abraham by the kings of Salem (14:18), of Sodom (14:21) and of Gerar (Gen 20:14-16) was no more than might be expected from their relative degrees of political importance, although a moral precedence, assumed in the tradition, may well have contributed to this respect.
Recent archaeological research has revolutionized our conception of the degree of culture which Abraham could have possessed and therefore presumably did possess. The high plane which literature had attained in both Babylonia and Egypt by 2000 BC is sufficient witness to the opportunities open to the man of birth and wealth in that day for the interchange of lofty thought.
And, without having recourse to Abraham's youth in Babylonia, we may assert even for the scenes of Abraham's maturer life the presence of the same culture, on the basis of a variety of facts, the testimony of which converges in this point, that Canaan in the second millennium BC was at the center of the intellectual life of the East and cannot have failed to afford, to such of its inhabitants as chose to avail themselves of it, every opportunity for enjoying the fruits of others' culture and for recording the substance of their own thoughts, emotions and activities
The Character of Abraham
Abraham's inward life may be considered under the rubrics of religion, ethics and personal traits.
The religion of Abraham centered in his faith in one God, who, because believed by him to be possessor of heaven and earth (Gen 14:22; 24:3), sovereign judge of the nations (Gen 15:14) of all the earth (Gen 18:25), disposer of the forces of Nature (Gen 18:14; 19:24; 20:17 f), exalted (Gen 14:22) and eternal (Gen 21:33), was for Abraham at least the only God.
So far as the Biblical tradition goes, Abraham's monotheism was not aggressive (otherwise in later Jewish tradition), and it is theoretically possible to attribute to him a merely "monarchical" or "henotheistic" type of monotheism, which would admit the coexistence with his deity, say, of the "gods which (his) fathers served" (Josh 24:14), or the identity with his deity of the supreme god of some Canaanite neighbor (Gen 14:18).
Yet this distinction of types of monotheism does not really belong to the sphere of religion as such, but rather to that of speculative philosophical thought. As religion, monotheism is just monotheism, and it asserts itself in corollaries drawn by the intellect only so far as the scope of the monotheist's intellectual life applies it.
For Abraham Yahweh not only was alone God; He was also his personal God in a closeness of fellowship (Gen 24:40; 48:15) that has made him for three religions the type of the pious man (2 Ch 20:7; Isa 41:8, Jas 2:23, note the Arabic name of Hebron El-Khalil, i.e. the friend (viz of God)) To Yahweh Abraham attributed the moral attributes of Justice (Gen 18:25), righteousness (Gen 18:19), faithfulness (Gen 24:27), wisdom (Gen 20:6), goodness (Gen 19:19), mercy (Gen 20:6).
These qualities were expected of men, and their contraries in men were punished by Yahweh (Gen 18:19; 20:11). He manifested Himself in dreams (Gen 20:3), visions (Gen 15:1) and theophanies (Gen 18:1), including the voice or apparition of the Divine mal'akh or messenger ("angel") (Gen 16:7; 22:11) On man's part, in addition to obedience to Yahweh's moral requirements and special commands, the expression of his religious nature was expected in sacrifice.
This bringing of offerings to the deity was diligently practiced by Abraham, as indicated by the mention of his erection of an altar at each successive residence. Alongside of this act of sacrifice there is sometimes mention of a "calling upon the name" of Yahweh (compare 1 Ki 18:24; Ps 116:13 f). This publication of his faith, doubtless in the presence of Canaanites, had its counterpart also in the public regard in which he was held as a "prophet" or spokesman for God (Gen 20:7).
His mediation showed itself also in intercessory prayer (Gen 17:20 for Ishmael; 18:23-32; compare 19:29 for Lot; 20:17 for Abimelech), which was but a phase of his general practice of prayer. The usual accompaniment of sacrifice, a professional priesthood, does not occur in Abraham's family, yet he recognizes priestly prerogative in the person of Melchizedek, priest-king of Salem (Gen 14:20). Religious sanction of course surrounds the taking of oaths (Gen 14:22; 24:3) and the sealing of covenants (Gen 21:23).
Other customs associated with religion are circumcision (Gen 17:10-14), given to Abraham as the sign of the perpetual covenant; tithing (Gen 14:20), recognized as the priest's due; and child-sacrifice (Gen 22:2,12), enjoined upon Abraham only to be expressly forbidden, approved for its spirit but interdicted in its practice.
As already indicated, the ethical attributes of God were regarded by Abraham as the ethical requirement of man. This in theory. In the sphere of applied ethics and casuistry Abraham's practice, at least, fell short of this ideal, even in the few incidents of his life preserved to us. It is clear that these lapses from virtue were offensive to the moral sense of Abraham's biographer, but we are left in the dark as to Abraham's sense of moral obliquity. (The "dust and ashes" of Gen 18:27 has no moral implication.)
The demands of candor and honor are not satisfactorily met, certainly not in the matter of Sarah's relationship to him (Gen 12:11-13; 20:2; compare 11-13), perhaps not in the matter of Isaac's intended sacrifice (Gen 22:5,8). To impose our own monogamous standard of marriage upon the patriarch would be unfair, in view of the different standard of his age and land. It is to his credit that no such scandals are recorded in his life and family as blacken the record of Lot (Gen 19:30-38), Reuben (Gen 35:22) and Judah (Gen 38:15-18). Similarly, Abraham's story shows only regard for life and property, both in respecting the rights of others and in expecting the same from them--the antipodes of Ishmael's character (Gen 16:12).
Outside, the bounds of strictly ethical requirement, Abraham's personality displayed certain characteristics that not only mark him out distinctly among the figures of history, but do him great credit as a singularly symmetrical and attractive character. Of his trust and reverence enough has been said under the head of religion.
But this love that is "the fulfilling of the law," manifested in such piety toward God, showed itself toward men in exceptional generosity (Gen 13:9; 14:23; 23:9,13; 24:10; 25:6), fidelity (Gen 14:14,24; 17:18; 18:23-32; 19:27; 21:11; 23:2), hospitality (Gen 18:2-8; 21:8) and compassion (Gen 16:6 and 21:14 when rightly understood, 18:23-32).
A solid self-respect (Gen 14:23; 16:6; 21:25; 23:9,13,16; 24:4) and real courage (Gen 14:14-16) were, however, marred by the cowardice that sacrificed Sarah to purchase personal safety where he had reason to regard life as insecure (Gen 20:11).
IBSE, "Abraham" (in the public domain) with minor edits.