Abram, Ibrahim

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Abraham, originally called Abram, was Israel's first great patriarch. He probably lived in the late 3d or early 2d millennium BC, but the earliest source for information on his life is Genesis 11-25, written about 10 centuries later. He was born at Ur in Chaldea, where he married his half-sister Sarah. Under divine inspiration, he went to Haran in Mesopotamia. Later God commanded him to leave his home for a new land; in return God offered Abraham fame, land, and descendants, promising that he would become a blessing to all nations. Abraham obeyed and migrated to Canaan, where he lived as a nomadic chieftain. He soon became wealthy, but he still had no son. Because Sarah was advanced in years, she substituted her Egyptian slave Hagar, who bore Ishmael, Abraham's first son. Later, in accord with a divine promise, Sarah gave birth to Isaac.

Abraham's faith was put to a severe test when God commanded that he sacrifice Isaac, his only son by Sarah. Abraham did not waver and he prepared for the sacrifice, but God spared the boy at the last moment, substituting a ram. The Bible portrays Abraham as a man struggling to trust God's promises. By his faith Abraham became the father of the Israelite people and is still honored in three different religions. Jewish tradition stresses Monotheism. Christians see him as a model for the man of faith and recognize him as their spiritual ancestor. Muslims accept him as an ancestor of the Arabs through Ishmael. Numerous works of art are based on the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.

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(Editor's Note: Muslims believe that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael instead of the later son of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac. Where the Hebrew and Christian Bibles present later genealogies as based on Isaac, the Islam Koran implies that Arabs descended through Ishmael, but with no credible proof. There is no agreement on this matter, but in all cases, it is agreed that Abraham was the first actual believer in the single God, and therefore his ancestor Shem was an ancestor of all of theirs. This means that both Jews and (Sunnite) Arabs are Semites [that is, descended from Shem]. Shia Islam tended to arise in Persia, in a different part of the world, and those Shia Muslims now consider themselves separate from Semites. It is hard to see how that could be and there would still be the intimate connection with Ishmael.)

J. J. M. Roberts

Bright, John, A History of Israel (1972); Neusner, Jacob, Genesis Rabbah: The Judaic Commentary on the Book of Genesis, 3 vols. (1985); van Seters, John, Abraham in History and Tradition (1975).


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Abraham, father of a multitude, son of Terah, was named (Gen. 11:27) before his older brothers Nahor and Haran, because he was the heir of the promises. Till the age of seventy, Abram sojourned among his kindred in his native country of Chaldea. He then, with his father and his family and household, quitted the city of Ur, in which he had hitherto dwelt, and went some 300 miles north to Haran, where he abode fifteen years. The cause of his migration was a call from God (Acts 7:2-4). There is no mention of this first call in the Old Testament; it is implied, however, in Gen. 12. While they tarried at Haran, Terah died at the age of 205 years.

Abram now received a second and more definite call, accompanied by a promise from God (Gen. 12:1, 2); whereupon he took his departure, taking his nephew Lot with him, "not knowing whither he went" (Heb. 11:8). He trusted implicitly to the guidance of Him who had called him. Abram now, with a large household of probably a thousand souls, entered on a migratory life, and dwelt in tents. Passing along the valley of the Jabbok, in the land of Canaan, he formed his first encampment at Sichem (Gen. 12:6), in the vale or oak-grove of Moreh, between Ebal on the north and Gerizim on the south. Here he received the great promise, "I will make of thee a great nation," etc. (Gen. 12:2, 3, 7). This promise comprehended not only temporal but also spiritual blessings. It implied that he was the chosen ancestor of the great Deliverer whose coming had been long ago predicted (Gen. 3:15). Soon after this, for some reason not mentioned, he removed his tent to the mountain district between Bethel, then called Luz, and Ai, towns about two miles apart, where he built an altar to "Jehovah." He again moved into the southern tract of Palestine, called by the Hebrews the Negeb; and was at length, on account of a famine, compelled to go down into Egypt.

This took place in the time of the Hyksos, a Semitic race which now held the Egyptians in bondage. Here occurred that case of deception on the part of Abram which exposed him to the rebuke of Pharaoh (Gen. 12:18). Sarai was restored to him; and Pharaoh loaded him with presents, recommending him to withdraw from the country. He returned to Canaan richer than when he left it, "in cattle, in silver, and in gold" (Gen. 12:8; 13:2. Comp. Ps. 105:13, 14). The whole party then moved northward, and returned to their previous station near Bethel. Here disputes arose between Lot's shepherds and those of Abram about water and pasturage. Abram generously gave Lot his choice of the pasture-ground. (Comp. 1 Cor. 6:7.) He chose the well-watered plain in which Sodom was situated, and removed thither; and thus the uncle and nephew were separated. Immediately after this Abram was cheered by a repetition of the promises already made to him, and then removed to the plain or "oakgrove" of Mamre, which is in Hebron. He finally settled here, pitching his tent under a famous oak or terebinth tree, called "the oak of Mamre" (Gen. 13:18).

This was his third resting-place in the land. Some fourteen years before this, while Abram was still in Chaldea, Palestine had been invaded by Chedorlaomer, King of Elam, who brought under tribute to him the five cities in the plain to which Lot had removed. This tribute was felt by the inhabitants of these cities to be a heavy burden, and after twelve years they revolted. This brought upon them the vengeance of Chedorlaomer, who had in league with him four other kings. He ravaged the whole country, plundering the towns, and carrying the inhabitants away as slaves. Among those thus treated was Lot. Hearing of the disaster that had fallen on his nephew, Abram immediately gathered from his own household a band of 318 armed men, and being joined by the Amoritish chiefs Mamre, Aner, and Eshcol, he pursued after Chedorlaomer, and overtook him near the springs of the Jordan. They attacked and routed his army, and pursued it over the range of Anti-Libanus as far as to Hobah, near Damascus, and then returned, bringing back all the spoils that had been carried away.

Returning by way of Salem, i.e., Jerusalem, the king of that place, Melchizedek, came forth to meet them with refreshments. To him Abram presented a tenth of the spoils, in recognition of his character as a priest of the most high God (Gen. 14:18-20). In a recently-discovered tablet, dated in the reign of the grandfather of Amraphel (Gen. 14:1), one of the witnesses is called "the Amorite, the son of Abiramu," or Abram. Having returned to his home at Mamre, the promises already made to him by God were repeated and enlarged (Gen. 13:14). "The word of the Lord" (an expression occurring here for the first time) "came to him" (15:1). He now understood better the future that lay before the nation that was to spring from him. Sarai, now seventy-five years old, in her impatience, persuaded Abram to take Hagar, her Egyptian maid, as a concubine, intending that whatever child might be born should be reckoned as her own. Ishmael was accordingly thus brought up, and was regarded as the heir of these promises (Gen. 16).

When Ishmael was thirteen years old, God again revealed yet more explicitly and fully his gracious purpose; and in token of the sure fulfilment of that purpose the patriarch's name was now changed from Abram to Abraham (Gen. 17:4, 5), and the rite of circumcision was instituted as a sign of the covenant. It was then announced that the heir to these covenant promises would be the son of Sarai, though she was now ninety years old; and it was directed that his name should be Isaac. At the same time, in commemoration of the promises, Sarai's name was changed to Sarah. On that memorable day of God's thus revealing his design, Abraham and his son Ishmael and all the males of his house were circumcised (Gen. 17).

Three months after this, as Abraham sat in his tent door, he saw three men approaching. They accepted his proffered hospitality, and, seated under an oak-tree, partook of the fare which Abraham and Sarah provided. One of the three visitants was none other than the Lord, and the other two were angels in the guise of men. The Lord renewed on this occasion his promise of a son by Sarah, who was rebuked for her unbelief. Abraham accompanied the three as they proceeded on their journey. The two angels went on toward Sodom; while the Lord tarried behind and talked with Abraham, making known to him the destruction that was about to fall on that guilty city. The patriarch interceded earnestly in behalf of the doomed city. But as not even ten righteous persons were found in it, for whose sake the city would have been spared, the threatened destruction fell upon it; and early next morning Abraham saw the smoke of the fire that consumed it as the "smoke of a furnace" (Gen. 19: 1-28).

After fifteen years' residence at Mamre, Abraham moved southward, and pitched his tent among the Philistines, near to Gerar. Here occurred that sad instance of prevarication on his part in his relation to Abimelech the King (Gen. 20). Soon after this event, the patriarch left the vicinity of Gerar, and moved down the fertile valley about 25 miles to Beer-sheba. It was probably here that Isaac was born, Abraham being now an hundred years old. A feeling of jealousy now arose between Sarah and Hagar, whose son, Ishmael, was no longer to be regarded as Abraham's heir. Sarah insisted that both Hagar and her son should be sent away. This was done, although it was a hard trial to Abraham (Gen. 21:12). At this point there is a blank in the patriarch's history of perhaps twenty-five years. These years of peace and happiness were spent at Beer-sheba.

The next time we see him his faith is put to a severe test by the command that suddenly came to him to go and offer up Isaac, the heir of all the promises, as a sacrifice on one of the mountains of Moriah. His faith stood the test (Heb. 11:17-19). He proceeded in a spirit of unhesitating obedience to carry out the command; and when about to slay his son, whom he had laid on the altar, his uplifted hand was arrested by the angel of Jehovah, and a ram, which was entangled in a thicket near at hand, was seized and offered in his stead. From this circumstance that place was called Jehovah-jireh, i.e., "The Lord will provide." The promises made to Abraham were again confirmed (and this was the last recorded word of God to the patriarch); and he descended the mount with his son, and returned to his home at Beer-sheba (Gen. 22:19), where he resided for some years, and then moved northward to Hebron. Some years after this Sarah died at Hebron, being 127 years old.

Abraham acquired now the needful possession of a burying-place, the cave of Machpelah, by purchase from the owner of it, Ephron the Hittite (Gen. 23); and there he buried Sarah. His next care was to provide a wife for Isaac, and for this purpose he sent his steward, Eliezer, to Haran (or Charran, Acts 7:2), where his brother Nahor and his family resided (Gen. 11:31). The result was that Rebekah, the daughter of Nahor's son Bethuel, became the wife of Isaac (Gen. 24). Abraham then himself took to wife Keturah, who became the mother of six sons, whose descendants were afterwards known as the "children of the east" (Judg. 6:3), and later as "Saracens." At length all his wanderings came to an end. At the age of 175 years, 100 years after he had first entered the land of Canaan, he died, and was buried in the old family burying-place at Machpelah (Gen. 25:7-10). The history of Abraham made a wide and deep impression on the ancient world, and references to it are interwoven in the religious traditions of almost all Eastern nations. He is called "the friend of God" (James 2:23), "faithful Abraham" (Gal. 3:9), "the father of us all" (Rom. 4:16).

(Easton Illustrated Dictionary)


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Abraham stands in the unique position of being the father of a nation and the father of all believers. God told Abraham to leave his homeland and go to the land of Canaan. There God entered into a covenant with him (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:12-21). Abraham was the progenitor of the Hebrew nation and of several Arabic peoples. All Jews regard themselves as his descendants, a special people chosen by God (Isa. 51:1-2).

But beyond the physical posterity lies the spiritual dimension, for "all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14). This is perhaps the first great missionary text in the Bible. Paul referred to it as the same gospel which he preached (Gal. 3:8). The blessing came through Christ, "the son of David, the son of Abraham" (Matt. 1:1). All who believe in Christ are the children of Abraham, even the Gentiles (Gal. 3:7-14). They too are "Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29). In fact, faith in Christ is more important than physical descent when it comes to determining who the children of Abraham really are (Matt. 3:9; John 8:33). God's promises to Abraham and the rest of the patriarchs find their unique fulfillment in Christ (Acts 3: 25-26), though in a limited sense any godly king who sat on David's throne fulfilled the Abrahamic covenant (cf. Ps. 72:17). The covenant was unconditional and eternal, but kings and other individuals who disobeyed God would find themselves cut off from the covenant (Gen. 17:13-14; 18:18-19).

The NT mentions Abraham more than any other OT figure except Moses, and it stresses his significance as a man of faith. When called to leave Mesopotamia, Abraham "obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going" (Heb. 11:8). Even after reaching Canaan, Abraham still remained a stranger and did not live to see the fulfillment of the promises (Heb. 11:9-10). He did believe that God would give him a son and that his offspring would someday become as numerous as the stars. On the basis of this faith God "credited it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:4-6). Paul cites this passage as his first illustration of justification by faith in Rom. 4:1-3. In the same chapter Paul notes that Abraham dared to believe that Sarah would give birth to the promised child, even though she was past the age of childbearing and he was a hundred years old (Rom. 4:18-19). Abraham's unwavering faith in the promises of God remains a challenge to all people to "believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead" (Rom. 4:20-24).

The greatest test of Abraham's faith came when God instructed him to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah. In spite of the fact that God's previous promises were intertwined with the life of Isaac, Abraham obeyed and was ready to plunge the knife into his dear son. According to Heb. 11:17-19, Abraham reasoned that God would bring Isaac back to life, so deep was his confidence in God's promises. This experience of nearly sacrificing his only son placed Abraham in the position of God the Father, who sent his one and only Son to Mt. Calvary, not far from Mt. Moriah (II Chr. 3:1). The Greek word that describes Christ as the "only begotten" or "one and only son," monogenes, is applied to Isaac in Heb. 11:17. A ram was substituted on the altar for Isaac (Gen. 22:13), but God "did not spare his own son" (Rom. 8:32). The pain and agony felt by Abraham at the prospect of sacrificing Isaac in some small way helps us understand the suffering of the Father when he offered up his Son for us all.

Abraham's fellowship with God is also illustrated through his prayer life. In Gen. 20:7 Abraham is called a prophet who will pray for the healing of a Philistine king and his family. Earlier, in Gen. 18:22-33, Abraham stood before the Lord and interceded in behalf of the city of Sodom. His boldness in prayer encourages the believer to lay petitions before the throne of grace. Because of his close walk with the Lord, Abraham is sometimes called the friend of God (II Chr. 20:7; Isa. 41:8; James 2:23). Both the Hebrew and the Greek words for "friend" include the idea of "the one who loves God." Abraham loved God more than anything else in the world (Gen. 22:2). His obedience to the Lord is emphasized also in Gen. 26:5. Before the law was written, Abraham kept God's requirements, commands, and laws.

Abraham was rightly called a prophet because he received divine revelation (Gen. 12:1-3). God spoke to him in a vision (Gen. 15:1) and appeared to him in a theophany (Gen. 18:1).

H M Wolf

(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

J. Walvoord, "Premillennialism and the Abrahamic Covenant," BS 109:37-46, 293-303; G. von Rad, OT Theology, I, 170-75; J. B. Payne, The Theology of the Older Testament; J. Jeremias, TDNT, I, 8-9; R. Longenecker, "The 'Faith of Abraham,'" JETS 20:203-12; W. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an OT Theology; R. E. Clements, TDOT,I, 52-58.

Abrahamic Covenant

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From: Home Bible Study Commentary by James M. Gray


The Confederated KIngs

Gen. 14: 1-12 How does the Revised Version translate "nations" in verse 1? In what valley was the battle joined (3)? How is that valley now identified? Against what six peoples did Chedorlaomer and his confederates campaign in the fourteenth year (5-7)? You will find these peoples located on the east and south of the Dead Sea. Who were victors in this case (10)? How did they reward themselves (11)? What gives us a special interest in this story (12)? Objectors have denied the historicity of it, but the monuments of Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt, with their inscriptions and paintings, confirm it. The names of some of these kings are given, and it would appear that Chedorlaomer was the general name of a line of Elamite kings corresponding to the several pharaohs and Caesars of later times.

Abram's Exploit of Arms

Gen. 14: 13-24 By what name was Abram distinguished among these heathen peoples (13)? What hint have we of his princely power (14)? What was the manner of his attack (15)? The motive for it (16)? We are not surprised at Abram's meeting with the king of Sodom on his return, but what other king is named (18)? What office did he hold beside that of king? Was he a heathen like the others (19)? Who gave the tithes, Abram or he? (Compare Heb. 7:6.) Melchizedek seems to have been a king of Salem, later called Jerusalem, who like Job had not only retained the knowledge of the true God but also like him was in his own person a prince and a priest. (Compare Job 1:5-8; 29; 25.) Recent discoveries of correspondence of the Egyptian kings written at about the time of the Exodus refute the theory once held that Melchizedek was an imaginary character and that this incident never occurred.

This correspondence includes letters of the king of Jerusalem, Ebed-Tob by name, which means "the servant of the Good One," who speaks of himself in the very phrases used by his predecessor Melchizedek (Heb. 7). The probability is that Melchizedek, like Chedorlaomer, was the common name of a race or dynasty of priest-kings ruling over that city. He is employed as a type of Christ in the 110th Psalm and in Hebrews 7. How does the king of Sodom probably the successor to him who had been slain (10), express his gratitude to Abram (21)? What is Abram's response (22-24)? How does this response show that Melchizedek worshipped the same God? What elements of character does it show in Abram?

The Second Test and Reward of Faith

Gen. 15: 1-6 "After these things" Abram might have feared that the defeated warriors would return in force and overwhelm him, nor is it improbable that misgivings arose as to relinquishing the spoil he was entitled to as the conqueror. But God could deliver him from fear in the one case and make up to him the loss in the other. How does He express both ideas in verse 1? But what burdens Abram heavier than either of these things (2)? God promised him a seed to inherit Canaan, which should be multiplied as the dust of the earth, yet he was going hence childless. He who should be possessor of his house under these circumstances would be Dammesek Eliezer (R. V.). Just how to explain this is difficult, but Eliezer was his steward, and oriental custom may have entailed the possessions of his master on such an one where no natural heir existed. We cannot explain this but would call attention to the reply of Jehovah, that it is not an adopted son he shall have but a supernatural one (4).

And now what does Jehovah do to Abram (5)? And what does He ask Abram to do? And what does He then promise him? Was Abram's faith able to measure up to this stupendous declaration (6)? And in what did this faith of Abram result to him (v. 6, last clause)? These words, "COUNTED IT TO HIM FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS," reveal a fact more important to Abram personally than the promise of a seed, except that the seed, considered as the forerunner and type of Christ, was the only ground at length on which Abram might be counted righteous. To understand these words is vital to an understanding of our own redemption, and an apprehension of the Gospel. Abram was a sinner, born into a state of wrongness, but God now puts him by an act of grace into a state of rightness, not because of Abram's righteous character but on the ground of his belief in God's word. Nor does this righteous state into which he is brought make it true that thereafter he is without a flaw in his character, for he is guilty of much.

But he has a right standing before God and because of it God can deal with him in time and eternity as He cannot deal with other men who do not have this standing. The significance of this to us is seen in Romans 4:23-25, which you are urged to read prayerfully. The question is sometimes asked whether Abram, and for that matter, any Old Testament saint, was justified or made righteous just as we are in these days. The answer is yes, and no. They were made righteous just as we are in that Christ took away their guilt on the cross and wrought out a righteousness for them, but they were not made righteous just as we are in that they knew Christ as we do. Christ indeed said that Abram rejoiced to see His day, and he saw it and was glad (John 8:56), but this does not mean that he saw and understood what we now do of the Person and finished work of Christ. The fact is this: God set a certain promise before Abram. He believed God's testimony concerning it and was counted righteous in consequence.

God sets a certain promise before us, and if we believe God's testimony concerning it we are counted righteous in consequence. The promise to Abram was that of a natural seed; the promise to us is that of salvation through Jesus Christ, the anti-type of that seed. We have but to believe His testimony concerning Jesus Christ, as Abram believed it concerning the seed, to obtain the same standing before God forever. It is not our character that gives it to us, nor does our change of standing immediately produce a change of character, but this does not affect the standing, which is the important thing because the character grows out of it. The reward of the first test of faith brought Abram a country (Gen. 12), but that of the second brought him a better country, that is, a heavenly (Heb. 11: 8-16).

The Covenant of God

Gen. 15: 7-12, 17-21 In what words does God now identify Himself and renew the promise of the land (7)? Is Abram altogether satisfied about the land (8)? What does God tell him to do (9)? What now happens to Abram (12)? What next takes place with reference to the sacrifice (17)? And in connection with this what does God do with Abram? How does He define the boundaries of His gift? We ought to say that "the river of Egypt," can hardly mean the Nile, although some so regard it. Others think it is that wady or brook of Egypt lying at the southern limit of the land of Israel, referred to in Num. 34:5; Josh. 15:4, and Isaiah 27:12. The strange incident recorded here is of symbolic importance. Men entered into covenant with one another in this way, that is, they would slay an animal, divide it into parts, walk up and down between them and thus solemnly seal the bond they had made.

Afterward part of the victim would be offered in sacrifice to their gods, while the remainder would be eaten by the parties to the covenant. It was the highest form of an oath. God thus condescended to assure Abram, since the smoking furnace and burning lamp, passing between the pieces and doubtless consuming them, typified His presence and acceptance of the bond. Among men it takes two to make a covenant, but not so here. God is alone in this case, and asks of Abram nothing in return but the repose of confidence in His faithfulness. It is thus that God covenants with us in Christ. He gives, and we take. He promises, and we believe. But dwelling on what Abram saw we passed over what he heard, and this is an essential part of God's covenant with him (13-16).

What did He say would be true of Abram's seed for a while? It is a matter of dispute how these four hundred years are computed, but Anstey's Romance of Chronology says that Abraham's seed here means Isaac and his descendants from the time of the weaning of the former when he became his father's heir, to the date of the Exodus, which was precisely 400 years. What two-fold promise is given Abram personally (15)? What particular reason does God give for the delay in possessing Canaan (16)? "The Amorite" here is the name used doubtless for all the inhabitants of Canaan, of which they were a chief nation and a very wicked one. The long-suffering of God will wait while they go on filling up the measure of their iniquity, but at last the sword of divine justice must fall. The same thing happens with sinners in general, and as another says, it ought to embitter the cup of their pleasures.

Questions 1. What corroborative evidence of the historicity of Chapter 14 can you name? 2. Recall in detail what has been taught or suggested about Melchizedek. 3. How would you explain Genesis 15:6? 4. Can you repeat from memory Romans 4:23-25? 5. In a word, what is the significance of the transaction in 15:7-21?


Catholic Information

The original form of the name, Abram, is apparently the Assyrian Abu-ramu. It is doubtful if the usual meaning attached to that word "lofty father", is correct. The meaning given to Abraham in Genesis 17:5 is popular word play, and the real meaning is unknown. The Assyriologist, Hommel suggests that in the Minnean dialect, the Hebrew letter Hê ("h") is written for long a. Perhaps here we may have the real derivation of the word, and Abraham may be only a dialectical form of Abram.

The story of Abraham is contained in the Book of Genesis, 11:26 to 25:18. We shall first give a brief outline of the Patriarch's life, as told in that portion of Genesis, then we shall in succession discuss the subject of Abraham from the viewpoints of the Old Testament, New Testament, profane history, and legend.


Thare had three sons, Abram, Nachor, and Aran. Abram married Sarai. Thare took Abram and his wife, Sarai, and Lot, the son of Aran, who was dead, and leaving Ur of the Chaldees, came to Haran and dwelt there till he died. Then, at the call of God, Abram, with his wife, Sarai, and Lot, and the rest of his belongings, went into the Land of Chanaan, amongst other places to Sichem and Bethel, where he built altars to the Lord: A famine breaking out in Chanaan, Abram journeyed southward to Egypt, and when he had entered the land, fearing that he would be killed on account of his wife, Sarai, he bade her say she was his sister. The report of Sarai's beauty was brought to the Pharao, and he took her into his harem, and honoured Abram on account of her. Later, however finding out that she was Abram's wife, he sent her away unharmed, and, upbraiding Abram for what he had done, he dismissed him from Egypt. From Egypt Abram came with Lot towards Bethel, and there, finding that their herds and flocks had grown to be very large, he proposed that they should separate and go their own ways. So Lot chose the country about the Jordan, whilst Abram dwelt in Chanaan, and came and dwelt in the vale of Mambre in Hebron. Now, on account of a revolt of the Kings of Sodom and Gomorrha and other kings from Chodorlahomor King of Elam, after they had served him twelve years, he in the fourteenth year made war upon them with his allies, Thadal king of nations, Amraphel King of Senaar, and Arioch King of Pontus. The King of Elam was victorious, and had already reached Dan with Lot a prisoner and laden with spoil, when he was overtaken by Abram. With 318 men the patri arch surprises, attacks, and defeats him, he retakes Lot and the spoil, and returns in triumph. On his way home, he is met by Melchisedech, king of Salem who brings forth bread and wine, and blesses him And Abram gives him tithes of all he has; but for] himself he reserves nothing. God promises Abram that his seed shall be as the stars of heaven, and he shall possess the land of Chanaan. But Abram does not see how this is to be, for he has already grown old. Then the promise is guaranteed by a sacrifice between God and Abram, and by a vision and a supernatural intervention in the night. Sarai, who was far advanced in years and had given up the idea of bearing children, persuaded Abram to take to himself her hand-maid, Agar. He does so, and Agar being with child despises the barren Sarai. For this Sarai afflicts her so that she flies into the desert, but is persuaded to return by an angel who comforts her with promises of the greatness of the son she is about to bear. She returns and brings forth Ismael. Thirteen years later God appears to Abram and promises him a son by Sarai, and that his posterity will be a great nation. As a sign, he changes Abram's name to Abraham, Sarai's to Sara, and ordains the rite of circumcision. One day later, as Abraham is sitting by his tent, in the vale of Mambre, Jehovah with two angels appears to him in human form. He shows them hospitality. Then again the promise of a son named Isaac is renewed to Abraham. The aged Sarah hears incredulously and laughs. Abraham is then told of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrha for their sins but obtains from Jehovah the promise that he will not destroy them if he finds ten just men therein. Then follows a description of the destruction of the two cities and the escape of Lot. Next morning Abraham, looking from his tent towards Sodom, sees the smoke of destruction ascending to heaven. After this, Abraham moves south to Gerara, and again fearing for his life says of his wife, "she is my sister". The king of Gerara, Abimelech, sends and takes her, but learning in a dream that she is Abraham's wife he restores her to him untouched, and rebukes him and gives him gifts. In her old age Sarah bears a son, lsaac, to Abraham, and he is circumcised on the eighth day. Whilst he is still young, Sarah is jealous, seeing Ismael playing with the child Isaac, so she procures that Agar and her son shall be cast out. Then Agar would have allowed Ismael to perish in the wilderness, had not an angel encouraged her by telling her of the boy's future.

Abraham is next related to have had a dispute with Abimelech over a well at Bersabee, which ends in a covenant being made between them. It was after this that the great trial of the faith of Abraham takes place. God commands him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. When Abraham has his arm raised and is in the very act of striking, an angel from heaven stays his hand and makes the most wonderful promises to him of the greatness of his posterity because of his complete trust in God. Sarah dies at the age of 127, and Abraham, having purchased from Ephron the Hethite the cave in Machpelah near Mambre, buries her there. His own career is not yet quite ended for first of all he takes a wife for his son Isaac, Rebecca from the city of Nachor in Mesopotamia. Then he marries Cetura, old though he is, and has by her six children. Finally, leaving all his possessions to Isaac, he dies at age 170, and is buried by Isaac and Ismael in the cave of Machpelah.


Abraham may be looked upon as the starting-point or source of Old Testament religion. So that from the days of Abraham men were wont to speak of God as the God of Abraham, whilst we do not find Abraham referring in the same way to anyone before him. So we have Abraham's servant speaking of "the God of my father Abraham" (Gen. xxiv, 12). Jehovah, in an apparition to Isaac, speaks of himself as the God of Abraham (Gen. xxvi, 24), and to Jacob he is "the God of my father Abraham" (Gen. xxxi, 42). So, too, showing that the religion of Israel does not begin with Moses, God says to Moses: "I am the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham" etc. (Ex. iii, 6). The same expression is used in the Psalms (xlvi, 10) and is common in the Old Testament. Abraham is thus selected as the first beginning or source of the religion of the children of Israel and the origin of its close connection with Jehovah, because of his faith, trust, and obedience to and in Jehovah and because of Jehovah's promises to him and to his seed. So, in Genesis, xv, 6, it is said: "Abram believed God, and it was reputed to him unto justice." This trust in God was shown by him when he left Haran and journeyed with his family into the unknown country of Chanaan. It was shown principally when he was willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac, in obedience to a command from God. It was on that occasion that God said: "Because thou hast not spared thy only begotten son for my sake I will bless thee" etc. (Genesis 22:16, 17). It is to this and other promises made so often by God to Israel that the writers of the Old Testament refer over and over again in confirmation of their privileges as the chosen people. These promises, which are recorded to have been made no less than eight times, are that God will give the land of Chanaan to Abraham and his seed (Genesis 12:7) that his seed shall increase and multiply as the stars of heaven; that he himself shall be blessed and that in him "all the kindred of the earth shall be blessed" (xii, 3). Accordingly the traditional view of the life of Abraham, as recorded in Genesis, is that it is history in the strict sense of the word. Thus Father von Hummelauer, S.J., in his commentary on Genesis in the "Cursus Scripturae Sacrae" (30), in answer to the question from what author the section on Abraham first proceeded, replies, from Abraham as the first source. Indeed he even says that it is all in one style, as a proof of its origin, and that the Passage, xxv, 5-ll, concerning the goods, death, and burial of Abraham comes from Isaac. It must, however, be added that it is doubtful if Father von Hummelauer still adheres to these views, written before 1895, since he has much modified his position in the volume on Deuteronomy.

Quite a different view on the section of Genesis treating of Abraham, and indeed of the whole of Genesis, is taken by modern critical scholars. They almost unanimously hold that the narrative of the patriarch's life is composed practically in its entirety of three writings or writers called respectively the Jahvist, the Elohist, and the priestly writer, and denoted by the letters J, E, and P. J and E consisted of collections of stories relating to the patriarch, some of older, some of later, origin. Perhaps the stories of J show a greater antiquity than those of E. Still the two authors are very much alike, and it is not always easy to distinguish one from the other in the combined narrative of J and E. From what we can observe, neither the Jahvist nor the Elohist was a personal author. Both are rather schools, and represent the collections of many years. Both collections were closed before the time of the prophets; J some time in the ninth century B.C., and E early in the eighth century, the former probably in the South Kingdom, the latter in the North. Then towards the end of the kingdom, perhaps owing to the inconvenience of having two rival accounts of the stories of the patriarchs etc. going about, a redactor R.JE (?) combined the two collections in one, keeping as much as possible to the words of his sources, making as few changes as possible so as to fit them into one another, and perhaps mostly following J in the account of Abraham. Then in the fifth century a writer who evidently belonged to the sacerdotal caste wrote down again an account of primitive and patriarchal history from the priestly point of view. He attached great importance to clearness and exactness; his accounts of things are often cast into the shape of formulas (cf. Genesis 1); he is very particular about genealogies, also as to chronological notes. The vividness and colour of the older patriarchal narratives, J and E, are wanting in the later one, which in the main is as formal as a legal document, though at times it is not wanting in dignity and even grandeur, as is the case in the first chapter of Genesis. Finally, the moral to be drawn from the various events narrated is more clearly set forth in this third writing and, according to the critics the moral standpoint is that of the fifth century B.C. Lastly, after the time of Ezra, this last history, P was worked up into one with the already combined narrative J.E. by a second redactor R. JEP, the result being the present history of Abraham, and indeed the present book of Genesis; though in all probability insertions were made at even a later date.


The generation of Jesus Christ is traced back to Abraham by St. Matthew, and though in Our Lord's genealogy, according to St. Luke, he is shown to be descended according to the flesh not only from Abraham but also from Adam, still St. Luke shows his appreciation of the fruits of descent from Abraham by attributing all the blessings of God on Israel to the promises made to Abraham. This he does in the Magnificat, iii, 55, and in the Benedictus, iii, 73. Moreover, as the New Testament traces the descent of Jesus Christ from Abraham, so it does of all the Jews; though as a rule, when this is done, it is accompanied with a note of warning, lest the Jews should imagine that they are entitled to place confidence in the fact of their carnal descent from Abraham, without anything further. Thus (Luke 3:8) John the Baptist says: "Do not begin to say: We have Abraham for our father, for I say to you God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham." In Luke 19:9 our Saviour calls the sinner Zacheus a son of Abraham, as he likewise calls a woman whom he had healed a daughter of Abraham (Luke 13:16); but in these and many similar cases, is it not merely another way of calling them Jews or Israelites, just as at times he refers to the Psalms under the general name of David, without implying that David wrote all the Psalms, and as he calls the Pentateuch the Books of Moses, without pretending to settle the question of the authorship of that work? It is not carnal descent from Abraham to which importance is attached; rather, it is to practising the virtues attributed to Abraham in Genesis. Thus in John, viii, the Jews, to whom Our Lord was speaking, boast (33): "We are the seed of Abraham", and Jesus replies (39): "If ye be the children of Abraham, do the works of Abraham". St. Paul, too, shows that he is a son of Abraham and glories in that fact as in 2 Corinthians 11:22, when he exclaims: "They are the seed of Abraham, so am I". And again (Romans 11:50): "I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham", and he addresses the Jews of Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:26) as "sons of the race of Abraham". But, following the teaching of Jesus Christ St. Paul does not attach too much importance to carnal descent from Abraham; for he says (Galatians 3:29): "If you be Christ's, then you are the seed of Abraham", and again (Romans 9:6): "All are not Israelites who are of Israel; neither are all they who are the seed of Abraham, children". So, too, we can observe in all the New Testament the importance attached to the promises made to Abraham. In the Acts of the Apostles, iii, 25, St. Peter reminds the Jews of the promise, "in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed". So does St. Stephen in his speech before the Council (Acts 7), and St. Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews, vi, 13. Nor was the faith of the ancient patriarch less highly thought of by the New Testament writers. The passage of Genesis which was most prominently before them was xv, 6: "Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him unto justice." In Romans 4, St. Paul argues strongly for the supremacy of faith, which he says justified Abraham; ' for if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory, but not before God." The same idea is inculcated in the Epistle to the Galatians, iii, where the question is discussed: "Did you receive the spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?" St. Paul decides that it is by faith, and says: "Therefore they that are of faith shall be justified with faithful Abraham". It is clear that this language, taken by itself, and apart from the absolute necessity of good works upheld by St. Paul, is liable to mislead and actually has misled many in the history of the Church. Hence, in order to appreciate to the full the Catholic doctrine of faith, we must supplement St. Paul by St. James. In ii, 17-22, of the Catholic Epistle we read: "So faith also, if it have not works, is dead in itself. But some man will say: Thou hast faith, and I have works, show me thy faith without works, and I will show thee by works my faith. Thou believest that there is one God. Thou dost well; the devils also believe and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, and by works faith was made perfect?"

In the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, St. Paul enters into a long discussion concerning the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ. He recalls the words of the 109th psalm more than once, in which it is said: "Thou art a Driest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech." He recalls the fact that Melchisedech is etymologically the king of justice and also king of peace; and moreover that he is not only king, but also priest of the Most High God. Then, calling to mind that there is no account of his father, mother, or genealogy, nor any record of his heirs, he likens him to Christ king and priest; no Levite nor according to the order of Aaron, but a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech.


One is inclined to ask, when considering the light which profane history may shed on the life of Abraham: Is not the life of the patriarch incredible? That question may be, and is, answered in different ways, according to the point of view of the questioner. Perhaps it will not be without interest to quote the answer of Professor Driver, an able and representative exponent of moderate critical views:

Do the patriarchal narratives contain intrinsic historical improbabilities? Or, in other words, is there anything intrinsically improbable in the lives of the several patriarchs, and the vicissitudes through which they severally pass? In considering this question a distinction must be drawn between the different sources of which these narratives are composed. Though particular details in them may be improbable, and though the representation may in parts be coloured by the religious and other associations of the age in which they were written, it cannot be said that the biographies of the first three patriarchs, as told in J and E, are, generally speaking, historically improbable; the movements and general lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are, taken on the whole, credible (Genesis, p. xlvi).

Such is the moderate view; the advanced attitude is somewhat different." The view taken by the patient reconstructive criticism of our day is that, not only religiously, but even, in a qualified sense, historically also, the narratives of Abraham have a claim on our attention" (Cheyne, Encyc. Bib., 26). Coming now to look at the light thrown by profane history upon the stories of Abraham's life as given in Genesis, we have, first of all, the narratives of ancient historians, as Nicholas of Damascus, Berosus, Hecateus, and the like. Nicholas of Damascus tells how Abraham, when he left Chaldea lived for some years in Damascus. In fact in Josephus he is said to have been the fourth king of that city. But then there is no practical doubt that this story is based on the words of Genesis 14:15, in which the town of Damascus is mentioned. As to the great man whom Josephus mentions as spoken of by Berosus, there is nothing to show that that great man was Abraham. In the "Praeparatio Evang." of Eusebius there are extracts recorded from numerous ancient writers, but no historical value can be attached to them. In fact, as far as ancient historians are concerned, we may say that all we know about Abraham is contained in the book of Genesis.

A much more important and interesting question is the amount of value to be attached to the recent archaeological discoveries of Biblical and other explorers in the East. Archaeologists like Hommel, and more especially Sayce, are disposed to attach very great significance to them. They say, in fact, that these discoveries throw a serious element of doubt over many of the conclusions of the higher critics. On the other hand, critics, both advanced as Cheyne and moderate as Driver, do not hold the deductions drawn by these archaeologists from the evidence of the monuments in very high esteem, but regard them as exaggerations. To put the matter more precisely, we quote the following from Professor Sayce, to enable the reader to see for himself what he thinks (Early Hist. of the Hebrews, 8):" Cuneiform tablets have been found relating to Chodorlahomor and the other kings of the East mentioned in the 14th chapter of Genesis, while in the Tel-el-Amarna correspondence the king of Jerusalem declares that he had been raised to the throne by the 'arm' of his God, and was therefore, like Melchisedech, a Driest-king. But Chodorlahomor and Melchisedech had long ago been banished to mythland and criticism could not admit that archaeological discovery had restored them to actual history. Writers, accordingly, in complacent ignorance of the cuneiform texts, told the Assyriologists that their translations and interpretations were alike erroneous." That passage will make it clear how much the critics and archaeologists are at variance. But no one can deny that Assyriology has thrown some light on the stories of Abraham and the other patriarchs. Thus the name of Abraham was known in those ancient times; for amongst other Canaanitish or Amorite names found in deeds of sale of that period are those of Abi-ramu, or Abram, Jacob-el (Ya'qub-il), and Josephel (Yasub-il). So, too, of the fourteenth chapter of Genesis, which relates the war of Chodorlahomor and his allies in Palestine, it is not so long ago that the advanced critics relegated it to the region of fable, under the conviction that Babylonians and Elamites at that early date in Palestine and the surrounding country was a gross anachronism. But now Professor Pinches has deciphered certain inscriptions relating to Babylonia in which the five kings, Amraphel King of Senaar, Arioch King of Pontus, Chodorlahomor King of the Elamites, and Thadal King of nations, are identified with Hammurabi King of Babylon, Eri-aku, Kudur-laghghamar, and Tuduchula, son of Gazza, and which tells of a campaign of these monarchs in Palestine. So that no one can any longer assert that the war spoken of in Genesis, xiv, can only be a late reflection of the wars of Sennacherib and others in the times of the kings. From the Tel-el-Amarna tablets we know that Babylonian influence was predominant in Palestine in those days. Moreover, we have light thrown by the cuneiform inscriptions upon the incident of Melchisedech. In Genesis, xiv, 18, it is said: "Melchisedech, the King of Salem, bringing forth bread and wine, for he was the priest of the Most High God, blessed him." Amongst the Tel-el-Amarna letters is one from Ebed-Tob, King of Jerusalem (the city is Ursalim, i.e. city of Salim, and it is spoken of as Salem). He is priest appointed by Salem, the god of Peace, and is hence both king and priest. In the same manner Melchisedech is priest and king, and naturally comes to greet Abraham returning in peace; and hence, too, Abraham offers to him as to a priest a tithe of the spoils. On the other hand, it must be stated that Professor Driver will not admit Sayce's deductions from the inscriptions as to EbedTob, and will not recognize any analogy between Salem and the Most High God.

Taking archaeology as a whole, it cannot be doubted that no definite results have been attained as to Abraham. What has come to light is susceptible of different interpretations. But there is no doubt that archaeology is putting an end to the idea that the patriarchal legends are mere myth. They are shown to be more than that. A state of things is being disclosed in patriarchal times quite consistent with much that is related in Genesis, and at times even apparently confirming the facts of the Bible.


We come now to the question: how far legend plays a part in the life of Abraham as recorded in Genesis. It is a practical and important question, because it is so much discussed by modern critics and they all believe in it. In setting forth the critical view on the subject, I must not be taken as giving my own views also.

Hermann Gunkel, in the Introduction to his Commentary on Genesis (3) writes: "There is no denying that there are legends in the Old Testament, consider for instance the stories of Samson and Jonah. Accordingly it is not a matter of belief or scepticism, but merely a matter of obtaining better knowledge, to examine whether the narratives of Genesis are history or legend." And again: "In a people with such a highly developed poetical faculty as Israel there must have been a place for saga too. The senseless confusion of ' legend ' with ' Iying ' has caused good people to hesitate to concede that there are legends in the Old Testament. But legends are not lies; on the contrary, they are a particular form of poetry." These passages give a very good idea of the present position of the Higher Criticism relative to the legends of Genesis, and of Abraham in particular.

The first principle enunciated by the critics is that the accounts of the primitive ages and of the patriarchal times originated amongst people who did not practise the art of writing. Amongst all peoples, they say, poetry and saga were the first beginning of history; so it was in Greece and Rome, so it was in Israel. These legends were circulated, and handed down by oral tradition, and contained, no doubt, a kernel of truth. Very often, where individual names are used these names in reality refer not to individuals but to tribes, as in Genesis 10, and the names of the twelve Patriarchs, whose migrations are those of the tribes they represent. It is not of course to be supposed that these legends are no older than the collections J, E, and P, in which they occur. They were in circulation ages before, and for long periods of time, those of earlier origin being shorter, those of later origin longer, often rather romances than legends, as that of Joseph. Nor were they all of Israelitish origin; some were Babylonian, some Egyptian. As to how the legends arose, this came about, they say, in many ways. At times the cause was etymological, to explain the meaning of a name, as when it is said that Isaac received his name because his mother laughed (cahaq); sometimes they were ethnological, to explain the geographical position, the adversity, or prosperity, of a certain tribe; sometimes historical, sometimes ceremonial, as the account explaining the covenant of circumcision; sometimes geological, as the explanation of the appearance of the Dead Sea and its surroundings. Ætiological legends of this kind form one class of those to be found in the lives of the patriarchs and elsewhere in Genesis. But there are others besides which do not concern us here.

When we try to discover the age of the formation of the patriarchal legends, we are confronted with a question of great complexity. For it is not merely a matter of the formation of the simple legends separately, but also of the amalgamation of these into more complex legends. Criticism teaches us that that period would have ended about the year 1200 B.C. Then would have followed the period of remodeling the legends, so that by 900 B.C. they would have assumed substantially the form they now have. After that date, whilst the legends kept in substance to the form they had received, they were modified in many ways so as to bring them into conformity with the moral standard of the day, still not so completely that the older and less conventional ideas of a more primitive age did not from time to time show through them. At this time, too, many collections of the ancient legends appear to have been made, much in the same way as St. Luke tells us in the beginning of his Gospel that many had written accounts of Our Saviour's life on their own authority.

Amongst other collections were those of J in the South and E in the North. Whilst others perished these two survived, and were supplemented towards the end of the captivity by the collection of P, which originated amidst priestly surroundings and was written from the ceremonial standpoint. Those that hold these views maintain that it is the fusion of these three collections of legends which has led to confusion in some incidents in the life of Abraham as for instance in the case of Sarai in Egypt, where her age seems inconsistent with her adventure with the Pharao. Hermann Gunkel writes (148): "It is not strange that the chronology of P displays everywhere the most absurd oddities when injected into the old legends, as a result, Sarah is still at sixty-five a beautiful woman whom the Egyptians seek to capture, and Ishmael is carried on his mother's shoulders after he is a youth of sixteen."

The collection of P was intended to take the place of the old combined collection of J and E. But the old narrative had a firm hold of the popular imagination and heart. And so the more recent collection was combined with the other two, being used as the groundwork of the whole, especially in chronology. It is that combined narrative which we now possess.

Publication information Written by J.A. Howlett. Transcribed by Tomas Hancil. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume I. Published 1907. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York

If you are studying the Christian/Jewish importance of Abraham, also, see:
Ishmael, Ismail

If you are studying the Islamic importance of Abraham, also, see:
Islam, Muhammad
Koran, Qur'an
Pillars of Faith
Testament of Abraham
Revelation - Hadiths from Book 1 of al-Bukhari
Belief - Hadiths from Book 2 of al-Bukhari
Knowledge - Hadiths from Book 3 of al-Bukhari
Times of the Prayers - Hadiths from Book 10 of al-Bukhari
Shortening the Prayers (At-Taqseer) - Hadiths from Book 20 of al-Bukhari
Pilgrimmage (Hajj) - Hadiths from Book 26 of al-Bukhari
Fighting for the Cause of Allah (Jihad) - Hadiths of Book 52 of al-Bukhari
ONENESS, UNIQUENESS OF ALLAH (TAWHEED) - Hadiths of Book 93 of al-Bukhari
Hanafiyyah School Theology (Sunni)
Malikiyyah School Theology (Sunni)
Shafi'iyyah School Theology (Sunni)
Hanbaliyyah School Theology (Sunni)
Maturidiyyah Theology (Sunni)
Ash'ariyyah Theology (Sunni)
Mutazilah Theology
Ja'fari Theology (Shia)
Nusayriyyah Theology (Shia)
Zaydiyyah Theology (Shia)
Imams (Shia)
Qarmatiyyah (Shia)
Ishmael, Ismail
Early Islamic History Outline
Kaaba, Black Stone
Sunnites, Sunni
Shiites, Shia
Sahih, al-Bukhari
Abu Bakr
Fatimids (Shia)
Ismailis (Shia)
Islamic Calendar
Interactive Muslim Calendar

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