International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
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. INTERPRETATIONS OF THE STORY OTHER THAN HISTORICAL 1. The Allegorical Interpretation 2. The Personification Theory 3. The Mythical Theory 4. The "Saga" Theory
1. Various Forms:
In the Old Testament, when applied, to the patriarch, the name appears as 'abhram, up to Genesis 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 B.C.). 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.
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.
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 Genesis 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.)
Genesis 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 (Genesis 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 (Genesis 11:29; Genesis 22:22). Both the beginning and the end of the residence in Haran are left chronologically undetermined, for the new beginning of the narrative at Genesis 12:1 is not intended by the writer to indicate chronological sequence, though it has been so understood, e.g. by Stephen (Acts 7:4). All that is definite in point of time is that an Aramean period of residence intervened between the Babylonian origin and the Palestinian career of Abraham. It is left to a comparison of the Biblical data with one another and with the data of archaeology, to fix the opening of Abraham's career in Palestine not far from the middle of the 20th century B.C.
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 Genesis conform to and are illuminated by the social features of Code of Hammurabi. (SeeK. 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 (Genesis 21:10-12) against Abraham's wish which represented the prevailing law and custom (Code of Hammurabi, sections 168). The "maid-servants" mentioned in the inventories of Abraham's wealth (Genesis 12:16; Genesis 24:35) doubtless furnished the "concubines" mentioned in Genesis 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 (Genesis 25:5). In addition to the children so begotten by Abraham the "men of his house" (Genesis 17:27) consisted of two classes, the "home-born" slaves (Genesis 14:14; Genesis 17:12, 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 (Genesis 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 Genesis 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 (Genesis 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 B.C. 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 B.C. 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
Abraham's inward life may be considered under the rubrics of religion, ethics and personal traits.
1. Religious Beliefs:
The religion of Abraham centered in his faith in one God, who, because believed by him to be possessor of heaven and earth (Genesis 14:22; Genesis 24:3), sovereign judge of the nations (Genesis 15:14) of all the earth (Genesis 18:25), disposer of the forces of Nature (Genesis 18:14; Genesis 19:24; Genesis 20:17), exalted (Genesis 14:22) and eternal (Genesis 21:33), was for Abraham at least the only God. So far as the Biblical tradition goes, Abraham's monotheism was not aggressive (otherwise in later Jewish tradition), and it is theoretically possible to attribute to him a merely "monarchical" or "henotheistic" type of monotheism, which would admit the coexistence with his deity, say, of the "gods which (his) fathers served" (Joshua 24:14), or the identity with his deity of the supreme god of some Canaanite neighbor (Genesis 14:18). Yet this distinction of types of monotheism does not really belong to the sphere of religion as such, but rather to that of speculative philosophical thought. As religion, monotheism is just monotheism, and it asserts itself in corollaries drawn by the intellect only so far as the scope of the monotheist's intellectual life applies it.
For Abraham Yahweh not only was alone God; He was also his personal God in a closeness of fellowship (Genesis 24:40; Genesis 48:15) that has made him for three religions the type of the pious man (2 Chronicles 20:7 Isaiah 41:8, James 2:23, note the Arabic name of Hebron El-Khalil, i.e. the friend (viz of God)) To Yahweh Abraham attributed the moral attributes of Justice (Genesis 18:25), righteousness (Genesis 18:19), faithfulness (Genesis 24:27), wisdom (Genesis 20:6), goodness (Genesis 19:19), mercy (Genesis 20:6). These qualities were expected of men, and their contraries in men were punished by Yahweh (Genesis 18:19; Genesis 20:11). He manifested Himself in dreams (Genesis 20:3), visions (Genesis 15:1) and theophanies (Genesis 18:1), including the voice or apparition of the Divine mal'akh or messenger ("angel") (Genesis 16:7; Genesis 22:11)
On man's part, in addition to obedience to Yahweh's moral requirements and special commands, the expression of his religious nature was expected in sacrifice. This bringing of offerings to the deity was diligently practiced by Abraham, as indicated by the mention of his erection of an altar at each successive residence. Alongside of this act of sacrifice there is sometimes mention of a "calling upon the name" of Yahweh (compare 1 Kings 18:24 Psalm 116:13). This publication of his faith, doubtless in the presence of Canaanites, had its counterpart also in the public regard in which he was held as a "prophet" or spokesman for God (Genesis 20:7). His mediation showed itself also in intercessory prayer (Genesis 17:20 for Ishmael; Genesis 18:23-32; compare Genesis 19:29 for Lot; Genesis 20:17 for Abimelech), which was but a phase of his general practice of prayer. The usual accompaniment of sacrifice, a professional priesthood, does not occur in Abraham's family, yet he recognizes priestly prerogative in the person of Melchizedek, priest-king of Salem (Genesis 14:20). Religious sanction of course surrounds the taking of oaths (Genesis 14:22; Genesis 24:3) and the sealing of covenants (Genesis 21:23). Other customs associated with religion are circumcision (Genesis 17:10-14), given to Abraham as the sign of the perpetual covenant; tithing (Genesis 14:20), recognized as the priest's due; and child-sacrifice (Genesis 22:2, 12), enjoined upon Abraham only to be expressly forbidden, approved for its spirit but interdicted in its practice.
As already indicated, the ethical attributes of God were regarded by Abraham as the ethical requirement of man. This in theory. In the sphere of applied ethics and casuistry Abraham's practice, at least, fell short of this ideal, even in the few incidents of his life preserved to us. It is clear that these lapses from virtue were offensive to the moral sense of Abraham's biographer, but we are left in the dark as to Abraham's sense of moral obliquity. (The "dust and ashes" of Genesis 18:27 has no moral implication.) The demands of candor and honor are not satisfactorily met, certainly not in the matter of Sarah's relationship to him (Genesis 12:11-13; Genesis 20:2; compare Genesis 11-13), perhaps not in the matter of Isaac's intended sacrifice (Genesis 22:5, 8). To impose our own monogamous standard of marriage upon the patriarch would be unfair, in view of the different standard of his age and land. It is to his credit that no such scandals are recorded in his life and family as blacken the record of Lot (Genesis 19:30-38), Reuben (Genesis 35:22) and Judah (Genesis 38:15-18). Similarly, Abraham's story shows only regard for life and property, both in respecting the rights of others and in expecting the same from them-the antipodes of Ishmael's character (Genesis 16:12).
3. Personal Traits:
Outside, the bounds of strictly ethical requirement, Abraham's personality displayed certain characteristics that not only mark him out distinctly among the figures of history, but do him great credit as a singularly symmetrical and attractive character. Of his trust and reverence enough has been said under the head of religion. But this love that is "the fulfilling of the law," manifested in such piety toward God, showed itself toward men in exceptional generosity (Genesis 13:9; Genesis 14:23; Genesis 23:9, 13; 24:10:00; 25:6), fidelity (Genesis 14:14, 24; Genesis 17:18; Genesis 18:23-32; 19:27; 21:11; 23:2), hospitality (Genesis 18:2-8; Genesis 21:8) and compassion (Genesis 16:6; Genesis 21:14 when rightly understood, Genesis 18:23-32). A solid self-respect (Genesis 14:23; Genesis 16:6; Genesis 21:25; Genesis 23:9, 13, 16; 24:4) and real courage (Genesis 14:14-16) were, however, marred by the cowardice that sacrificed Sarah to purchase personal safety where he had reason to regard life as insecure (Genesis 20:11).
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:
It is naturally as progenitor of the people of Israel, "the seed of Abraham," as they are often termed, that Abraham stands out most prominently in the Old Testament books. Sometimes the contrast between him as an individual and his numerous progeny serves to point a lesson (Isaiah 51:2 Ezekiel 33:24; perhaps Malachi 2:10; compare Malachi 2:15). "The God of Abraham" serves as a designation of Yahweh from the time of Isaac to the latest period; it is by this title that Moses identifies the God who has sent him with the ancestral deity of the children of Israel (Exodus 3:15). Men remembered in those later times that this God appeared to Abraham in theophany (Exodus 6:3), and, when he was still among his people who worshipped other gods (Joshua 24:3) chose him (Nehemiah 9:7), led him, redeemed him (Isaiah 29:22) and made him the recipient of those special blessings (Micah 7:20) which were pledged by covenant and oath (so every larger historical book, also the historical Psalm 105:9), notably the inheritance of the land of Canaan (Deuteronomy 6:10) Nor was Abraham's religious personality forgotten by his posterity: he was remembered by them as God's friend (2 Chronicles 20:7 Isaiah 41:8), His servant, the very recollection of whom by God would offset the horror with which the sins of his descendants inspired Yahweh (Deuteronomy 9:27).
2. In the New Testament:
When we pass to the New Testament we are astonished at the wealth and variety of allusion to Abraham. As in the Old Testament, his position of ancestor lends him much of his significance, not only as ancestor of Israel (Acts 13:26), but specifically as ancestor, now of the Levitical priesthood (Hebrews 7:5), now of the Messiah (Matthew 1:1), now, by the peculiarly Christian doctrine of the unity of believers in Christ, of Christian believers (Galatians 3:16, 29). All that Abraham the ancestor received through Divine election, by the covenant made with him, is inherited by his seed and passes under the collective names of the promise (Romans 4:13), the blessing (Galatians 3:14), mercy (Luke 1:54), the oath (Luke 1:73), the covenant (Acts 3:25). The way in which Abraham responded to this peculiar goodness of God makes him the type of the Christian believer. Though so far in the past that he was used as a measure of antiquity (John 8:58), he is declared to have "seen" Messiah's "day" (John 8:56).
It is his faith in the Divine promise, which, just because it was for him peculiarly unsupported by any evidence of the senses, becomes the type of the faith that leads to justification (Romans 4:3), and therefore in this sense again he is the "father" of Christians, as believers (Romans 4:11). For that promise to Abraham was, after all, a "preaching beforehand" of the Christian gospel, in that it embraced "all the families of the earth" (Galatians 3:8). Of this exalted honor, James reminds us, Abraham proved himself worthy, not by an inoperative faith, but by "works" that evidenced his righteousness (James 2:21; compare John 8:39). The obedience that faith wrought in him is what is especially praised by the author of Hebrews (Hebrews 11:8, 17). In accordance with this high estimate of the patriarch's piety, we read of his eternal felicity, not only in the current conceptions of the Jews (parable, Luke 16), but also in the express assertion of our Lord (Matthew 8:11 Luke 13:28). Incidental historical allusions to the events of Abraham's life are frequent in the New Testament, but do not add anything to this estimate of his religious significance.
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.
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ABRAHAM, BOOK OF
See APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE.
BOOK OF ABRAHAM
See APOCALYPTIC LITERATURE.