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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 Old Testament he is mentioned by name more than forty times. The number of references by New Testament writers exceeds seventy. Numerous archeological discoveries, especially during the last century, 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).

The life of Abraham

Ur in Chaldees, most generally identified as modern Tell el-Muqayyar, located nine miles West of Nasiriyeh on the Euphrates River in South Iraq, was the birthplace of Abram the son of Terah a descendant of Shem. Migrating approximately 600 miles North and West 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 miles. Stopping en route at Shechem and Bethel, Abram settled in the Negeb or South 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 North, 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).

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 miles 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-eightmiles 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 miles 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 miles 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 century 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.


A correlation of external historical knowledge and the Genesis account points approximately to the 19th century 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.


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 century b.c., it is generally recognized that it embodies the practices of the Hittites as far back as the 19th century 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.).

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).


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 Old Testament 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).

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).

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

Additional Material

Source 1

ABRAHAM (ā'bra-hăm, Heb. ’avrāhām, father of a multitude; earlier name Abram, Heb. ’avram, exalted father). Son of Terah, founder of the Hebrew nation and father of the people of God, he traced his ancestry back to Noah through Shem (Gen.11.10ff.) and came into the Bible story out of an idolatrous background (Josh.24.2). After the death of his brother Haran (Gen.11.28), Abram moved in obedience to a divine vision (Acts.7.2-Acts.7.4) from Ur of the Chaldees in Mesopotamia to the city of Haran in the extreme north of Palestine. He was accompanied by his father Terah, his wife and half-sister Sarai, and his nephew Lot (Gen.11.31-Gen.11.32).

Abraham’s renown in the Bible as a man of faith and the father of the people of faith is a direct consequence of the way the Bible tells his story. Like all history writing, the Bible is selective in the facts it records, choosing those that are most significant to bring out the meaning of the events. The Genesis account of Abraham’s life records the development of his faith—from the imperfect faith of Gen.12.1-Gen.12.20-Gen.13.1-Gen.13.18, through the growing faith of Gen.14.1-Gen.14.24-Gen.17.1-Gen.17.27, and on to the mature faith of Gen.18.1-Gen.18.33-Gen.25.10.

The fascinating glimpse into the international tensions of the ancient world given in Gen.14.1-Gen.14.24 allows us to see Abram’s growing faith. Clearly he is now more aware of himself as the man separated to God from the world. He first opposed the kings (Gen.14.13-Gen.14.16) and then refused the world’s wealth (Gen.14.21-Gen.14.24). These are plainly the acts of a man confident in the protection and provision of God. The Lord was not slow to respond in both regards (Gen.15.1). But the richness of the divine response provoked Abram to question the point of it all, for he had no son to inherit what the Lord would give him. This leads to that high moment of faith when Abram, fully aware that every human aspect of the situation was against him (Rom.4.18-Rom.4.21), rested wholly and absolutely on God’s word of promise; this is the faith that justifies (Gen.15.4-Gen.15.6). But though Abram had leaped onto a pinnacle of faith, he was still only learning to walk in the way of faith.

The Lord confirmed his promises of children and land in a great covenant sign (Gen.15.7-Gen.15.21), but Abram and Sarai, tired of waiting (Gen.16.1-Gen.16.16), turned from the way of faith to a human expedient that was permitted—even expected—by the laws of the day: a childless couple might “have children” through the medium of a secondary wife. Poor, mistreated Hagar fell into this role. Yet the Lord was not diverted from his chosen course: in gentle grace he picked up the pieces of Hagar’s broken life (Gen.16.7-Gen.16.16) and reaffirmed his covenant with Abram (Gen.17.1ff.). In three ways the Lord made his promises more sure. First, by making Abram and Sarai into new people (Gen.17.3-Gen.17.5, Gen.17.15-Gen.17.16). This is the significance of the gift of new names: they are themselves made new, with new capacities. Second, the Lord restated and amplified his spoken promises so as to leave no doubt of his seriousness in making them (Gen.17.6-Gen.17.8). Third, he sealed his promises with the sign of circumcision (Gen.17.9-Gen.17.14) so that forever after Abraham and his family would be able to look at their own bodies and say, “The Lord has indeed kept his promises to me!”

Quietly the underlining of the maturity of Abraham’s faith proceeds: Sarah was laid to rest within the Promised Land by her husband, who was planning to be buried there himself, awaiting the fulfillment of the promise of possession. Sternly Abraham’s servant was forbidden to move Isaac away from the place of promise (Gen.24.6-Gen.24.7), for even if Isaac had to marry a Canaanite girl (Gen.24.8), he was not to leave the land designated by God.

Three main streams of New Testament thought focus on Abraham as the exemplar of faith. Paul stresses faith as simple trust in the promises of God (Rom.4.18-Rom.4.22); Hebrews takes note especially of the patience of faith (Rom.11.8-Rom.11.16; cf. Rom.6.11-Rom.6.13); and James brings out the essential obedience that proves faith to be geniune (Rom.2.21-Rom.2.23).

Bibliography: A. M. Stibbs, God’s Friend, 1964; R. E. Clements, Abraham and David, 1967; D. J. Wiseman, “Abraham Re-assessed,” in Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives, ed. A. R. Millard and D. J. Wiseman, 1980; R. S. Wallace, Abraham, 1981.——JAM

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


I. NAME 1. Various Forms 2. Etymology 3. Association II. KINDRED III. CAREER 1. Period of Wandering 2. Period of Residence at Hebron 3. Period of Residence in the Negeb IV. CONDITIONS OF LIFE 1. Economic Conditions 2. Social Conditions 3. Political Conditions 4. Cultural Conditions V. CHARACTER 1. Religious Beliefs 2. Morality 3. Personal Traits VI. SIGNIFICANCE IN THE HISTORY OF RELIGION 1. In the Old Testament 2. In the New Testament 3. In Jewish Tradition 4. In the Koran VII. INew TestamentERPRETATIONS OF THE STORY Old TestamentHER THAN HISTORICAL 1. The Allegorical Interpretation 2. The Personification Theory 3. The Mythical Theory 4. The "Saga" Theory

I. Name. 1. Various Forms:

In the Old Testament, when applied, to the patriarch, the name appears as ’abhram, up to Ge 17:5; thereafter always as ’abhraham. Two other persons are named ’abhiram. The identity of this name with ’abhram cannot be doubted in view of the variation between ’abhiner and ’abhner, ’abhishalom and ’abhshalom, etc. Abraham also appears in the list at Karnak of places conquered by Sheshonk I: ’brm (no. 72) represents ’abram, with which Spiegelberg (Aegypt. Randglossen zum Altes Testament, 14) proposes to connect the preceding name (so that the whole would read "the field of Abram.") Outside of Palestine this name (Abiramu) has come to light just where from the Biblical tradition we should expect to find it, namely, in Babylonia (e.g. in a contract of the reign of Apil-Sin, second predecessor of Hammurabi; also for the aunt (!) of Esarhaddon 680-669 BC). Ungnad has recently found it, among documents from Dilbat dating from the Hammurabi dynasty, in the forms A-ba-am-ra-ma, A-ba-am-ra-am, as well as A-ba-ra-ma.

2. Etymology:

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. (Yet observe above its use in Assyria for a woman; compare ABISHAG; ABIGAIL). Some were inclined rather to concede that the second element was a mystery, like the second element in the majority of names beginning with ’abh and ’ach, "father" and "brother." But the full cuneiform writing of the name, with the case-ending am, indicates that the noun "father" is in the accusative, governed by the verb which furnishes the second component, and that this verb therefore is probably ramu (= Hebrew racham) "to love," etc.; so that the name would mean something like "he loves the (his) father." (So Ungnad, also Ranke in Gressmann’s article "Sage und Geschichte in den Patriarchenerzahlungen," ZATW (1910), 3.) Analogy proves that this is in the Babylonian fashion of the period, and that judging from the various writings of this and similar names, its pronunciation was not far from ’abh-ram.

3. Association:

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 ’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 Ge 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 ’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.)

II. Kindred. Ge 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 ’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 (Ge 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 (Ge 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 Ge 12:1 is not intended by the writer to indicate chronological sequence, though it has been so understood, e.g. by Stephen (Ac 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.

III. Career. Briefiy summed up, that career was as follows.

1. 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.

2. 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 ’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.

3. 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.

IV. Conditions of Life. The life of Abraham in its outward features may be considered under the following topics: economic, social, political and cultural conditions.

1. Economic 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.

2. Social Conditions:

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 Ge 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 (Ge 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 (Ge 12:16; 24:35) doubtless furnished the "concubines" mentioned in Ge 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 (Ge 25:5). In addition to the children so begotten by Abraham the "men of his house" (Ge 17:27) consisted of two classes, the "home-born" slaves (Ge 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 (Ge 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.

3. Political Conditions:

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 Ge 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 (Ge 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.

4. Cultural Conditions:

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

V. Character. Abraham’s inward life may be considered under the rubrics of religion, ethics and personal traits.

1. Religious Beliefs:

2. Morality:

3. Personal Traits:

VI. Significance in the History of Religion. Abraham is a significant figure throughout the Bible, and plays an important role in extra-Biblical Jewish tradition and in the Mohammedan religion.

1. In the Old Testament:

2. In the New Testament:

3. In Jewish Tradition:

Outside the Scriptures we have abundant evidence of the way that Abraham was regarded by his posterity in the Jewish nation. The oldest of these witnesses, Ecclesiasticus, contains none of the accretions of the later Abraham-legends. Its praise of Abraham is confined to the same three great facts that appealed to the canonical writers, namely, his glory as Israel’s ancestor, his election to be recipient of the covenant, and his piety (including perhaps a tinge of "nomism") even under severe testing (Ecclesiasticus 44:19-21). The Improbable and often unworthy and even grotesque features of Abraham’s career and character in the later rabbinical midrashim are of no religious significance, beyond the evidence they afford of the way Abraham’s unique position and piety were cherished by the Jews.

4. In the Koran:

To Mohammed Abraham is of importance in several ways. He is mentioned in no less than 188 verses of the Koran, more than any other character except Moses. He is one of the series of prophets sent by God. He is the common ancestor of the Arab and the Jew. He plays the same role of religious reformer over against his idolatrous kinsmen as Mohammed himself played. He builds the first pure temple for God’s worship (at Mecca!). As in the Bible so in the Koran Abraham is the recipient of the Divine covenant for himself and for his posterity, and exhibits in his character the appropriate virtues of one so highly favored: faith, righteousness, purity of heart, gratitude, fidelity, compassion. He receives marked tokens of the Divine favor in the shape of deliverance, guidance, visions, angelic messengers (no theophanies for Mohammed!), miracles, assurance of resurrection and entrance into paradise. He is called "Imam of the peoples" (2 118) VII. Interpretations of the Story Other than the Historical. There are writers in both ancient and modern times who have, from various standpoints, interpreted the person and career of Abraham otherwise than as what it purports to be, namely, the real experiences of a human person named Abraham. These various views may be classified according to the motive or impulse which they believe to have led to the creation of this story in the mind of its author or authors.

1. The Allegorical Interpretation:

Philo’s tract on Abraham bears as alternative titles, "On the Life of the Wise Man Made Perfect by Instruction, or, On the Unwritten Law." Abraham’s life is not for him a history that serves to illustrate these things, but an allegory by which these things are embodied. Paul’s use of the Sarah-Hagar episode in Ga 4:21-31 belongs to this type of exposition (compare allegoroumena, 4:24), of which there are also a few other instances in his epistles; yet to infer from this that Paul shared Philo’s general attitude toward the patriarchal narrative would be unwarranted, since his use of this method is incidental, exceptional, and merely corroborative of points already established by sound reason. "Luther compares it to a painting which decorates a house already built" (Schaff, "Galatians," Excursus).

2. The Personification Theory:

As to Philo Abraham is the personification of a certain type of humanity, so to some modern writers he is the personification of the Hebrew nation or of a tribe belonging to the Hebrew group. This view, which is indeed very widely held with respect to the patriarchal figures in general, furnishes so many more difficulties in its specific application to Abraham than to the others, that it has been rejected in Abraham’s case even by some who have adopted it for figures like Isaac, Ishmael and Jacob. Thus Meyer (Die Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstamme, 250; compare also note on p. 251), speaking of his earlier opinion, acknowledges that, at the time when he "regarded the assertion of Stade as proved that Jacob and Isaac were tribes," even then he "still recognized Abraham as a mythical figure and originally a god." A similar differentiation of Abraham from the rest is true of most of the other adherents of the views about to be mentioned. Hence also Wellhausen says (Prolegomena 6, 317): "Only Abraham is certainly no name of a people, like Isaac and Lot; he is rather ambiguous anyway. We dare not of course on that account hold him in this connection as an historical personage; rather than that he might be a free creation of unconscious fiction. He is probably the youngest figure in this company and appears to have been only at a relatively late date put before his son Isaac."

3. The Mythical Theory:

Urged popularly by Noldeke (Im neuen Reich (1871), I, 508 ff) and taken up by other scholars, especially in the case of Abraham, the view gained general currency among those who denied the historicity of Gen, that the patriarchs were old deities. From this relatively high estate, it was held, they had fallen to the plane of mere mortals (though with remnants of the hero or even demigod here and there visible) on which they appear in Gen. A new phase of this mythical theory has been developed in the elaboration by Winckler and others of their astral-theology of the Babylonian world, in which the worship of Abraham as the moon-god by the Semites of Palestine plays a part. Abraham’s traditional origin connects him with Ur and Haran, leading centers of the moon-cult.

Apart from this fact the arguments relied upon to establish this identification of Abraham with Sin may be judged by the following samples: "When further the consort of Abraham bears the name Sarah, and one of the women among his closest relations the name Milcah, this gives food for thought, since these names correspond precisely with the titles of the female deities worshipped at Haran alongside the moongod Sin. Above all, however, the number 318, that appears in Ge 14:14 in connection with the figure of Abraham, is convincing because this number, which surely has no historical value, can only be satisfactorily explained from the circle of ideas of the moon-religion, since in the lunar year of 354 days there are just 318 days on which the moon is visible--deducting 36 days, or three for each of the twelve months, on which the moon is invisible" (Baentsch, Monotheismus, 60 f). In spite of this assurance, however, nothing could exceed the scorn with which these combinations and conjectures of Winckler, A. Jeremias and others of this school are received by those who in fact differ from them with respect to Abraham in little save the answer to the question, what deity was Abraham (see e.g. Meyer, op. cit., 252 f, 256 f).

4. The "Saga" Theory:

Gunkel (Genesis, Introduction), in insisting upon the resemblance of the patriarchal narrative to the "sagas" of other primitive peoples, draws attention both to the human traits of figures like Abraham, and to the very early origin of the material embodied in our present book of Genesis. First as stories orally circulated, then as stories committed to writing, and finally as a number of collections or groups of such stories formed into a cycle, the Abraham-narratives, like the Jacob-narratives and the Joseph-narratives , grew through a long and complex literary history. Gressmann (op. cit, 9-34) amends Gunkel’s results, in applying to them the principles of primitive literary development laid down by Professor Wundt in his Volkerpsychologie. He holds that the kernel of the Abraham-narratives is a series of fairy-stories, of international diffusion and unknown origin, which have been given "a local habitation and a name" by attaching to them the (ex hypothesi) then common name of Abraham (similarly Lot, etc.) and associating them with the country nearest to the wilderness of Judea, the home of their authors, namely, about Hebron and the Dead Sea. A high antiquity (1300-1100 BC) is asserted for these stories, their astonishing accuracy in details wherever they can be tested by extra-Biblical tradition is conceded, as also the probability that, "though many riddles still remain unsolved, yet many other traditions will be cleared up by new discoveries" of archaeology.


  • 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).