(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Chaldean-born settler of the land of Canaan{$I[g]Israel;Abraham} Abraham occupies an important place in the history of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. According to Hebrew tradition and biblical record, he is the ancient ancestor of the people of Israel to whom God first promised territory, nationhood, and spiritual blessing. In the Quran, he is one of the six prophets who received God’s law.

Early Life

The only historical record of the life of Abraham (AY-bruh-ham) is found in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, one of the two divisions of the Bible whose composition is traditionally attributed to Moses. The full story of Abraham’s life is contained in Genesis 11:27-25:11, although there are references to Abraham’s life scattered throughout the rest of the Bible. The dating of Abraham’s birth and early life is primarily informed guesswork, but archaeological consensus is that Abraham was born sometime around the twentieth century b.c.e. His father is identified as Terah in the biblical genealogy (Genesis 11:27). Evidently, Terah was a wealthy man who owned property and livestock and who worshiped the pagan gods of Chaldea. Chaldea, the ancient name for Babylonia, was a center of advanced culture and commerce in antiquity, and it is quite likely that Abraham was a highly educated, cosmopolitan citizen of this society, himself no doubt wealthy. Some archaeologists contend that it is possible that Abraham left written records of his journey to the ancient Near East that were incorporated into the Pentateuch. Most modern scholars accept the substantial historicity of these narratives.

The biblical record introduces Abraham as “Abram,” which means “father” in Hebrew; later in the narrative, Abram is renamed as the better known “Abraham,” which means “father of many.” Abram was called by God to leave his father’s house in Ur to journey to a land that God promises to him and his descendants. There is no indication in the narrative that Abram had been chosen for any particular merit or religious devotion, though later Old and New Testament writings present him as the archetypal man of faith, who serves as an example to all of the power of belief in God’s sovereignty. Accompanying him on the journey were his wife, Sarah, and nephew Lot and their families.

Most startling in this sequence of events is Abraham’s willingness to abandon the pagan deities of his family to embrace a seemingly new God—and thus become a declared monotheist in a decidedly polytheistic and pagan antiquity. The next episodes reported in the life of Abram trace his growing acceptance of this unique belief and center on his journey to Canaan, the land promised to him. His path takes him and his traveling companions through Egypt and the surrounding nations. In Egypt, Abram fears that his beautiful wife will be taken from him, so he claims that she is his sister and thus attempts to deceive Pharaoh and his princes. When God reveals her true identity to the Egyptian monarch, Pharaoh orders Abram and his entourage to leave. On leaving Egypt, Abram and his nephew decide to go their separate ways, Lot choosing the fertile land of Sodom and Gomorrah for settlement and Abram the northern country of Hebron. These choices become fateful in the lineage of both men.

Life’s Work

The life of Abraham as it unfolds in the book of Genesis encompasses the fulfillment of the promises God had announced to him before he left Ur. Important in the light of the birth of modern Israel is the fact that the land promised to Abraham is quite explicitly identified in the biblical record: God promises Abraham and his descendants possession of the whole land from the Euphrates River southwestward, an area, in fact, larger than the land area occupied by Israel since World War II.

The three most important episodes recounted in Genesis involve Abraham’s attempt to secure an heir to receive the inheritance of God’s promises, the institution of the covenant between God and Abraham sealed with the act of circumcision, and the judgment and destruction of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah—Lot’s new homeland—because of their residents’ rampant rebellion and decadence. It is in these episodes that the character of Abraham as a man of faith as well as of action is established and becomes the pattern for later biblical and traditional portraits of his heroism and trust.

Soon after he and Lot part company, Abram is called on to rescue Lot; in so doing he proves himself both a good military strategist and also a devout, unselfish believer. Lot has found himself the captive of rival kings who have plundered the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abram raises an army and, in saving Lot, also manages to recover all of his lost possessions and captured kinsmen. In returning from these exploits, Abram encounters the mysterious King of Salem, Melchizadek, who pronounces a blessing on Abram for his faith and his canny defeat of the treacherous armies in the land about him. Melchizadek is also a priest of “the God Most High,” or “Yahweh,” the same God who has called Abraham out of Ur to a special blessing. Abram pays a tithe to Melchizadek, and, when the King of Salem praises him, Abram defers the praise to God, who had blessed him with victory.

The promises to Abraham in Genesis 12 were intended to foreshadow the tapestry of events in his life, and in Genesis 15 God reiterates them as Abram continues his quest for the land. He becomes skeptical and impatient of the likelihood of their fulfillment, however, given that he is still childless because of Sarah’s barrenness. Nevertheless, God renews his promise to Abram that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars in the sky and that the land and nation promised to him will indeed come to his descendants...

(The entire section is 2405 words.)