Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


The name Abram (ابرَاهِيم in Arabic, אברהם in Hebrew) is a Hebrew pun on Ibrim, meaning hebrews, to sound like "Exaulted Father", and was the foremost of the Biblical patriarchs. Later in life he went by the name Abraham (Ibrahim), which means "father of many" (see Genesis 17). He is the Legendary ancestor to a number of middle-eastern (Arabs and Israelites, also Edom and several others) and Eurasian peoples from Keturah but more importantly has religious significance for three major world religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam).

Abraham in Genesis

The largest surviving ancient account of his life is found in the Genesis, beginning in Chapter 11, at the close of a genealogy of the sons of Shem (which includes among its members Eber, the eponym of the Hebrews).

His father Terah is said to have come from Ur of the Khaldis in Mesopotamia commonly confused with Babel of the much later Chaldeans. He migrated to Haran, apparently the classical Carrhae, on a branch of the Habor. Thence, after a short stay, Abram with his wife Sarai, and Lot the son of Abram's brother Haran, and all their followers, departed for Canaan. According to the account, Yahweh called Abram to go to "the land I will show you", and promised to bless Abram and make him (though hitherto childless) a great nation. Based on this, Abram journeyed down to Shechem, and at the sacred tree (compare Genesis 25:4, Joshua 24:26, Judges 9:6) received a new promise that the land would be given unto his seed (descendants). Having built an altar to commemorate the theophany, he removed to a spot between Bethel and Ai, where he built another altar and called upon (i.e. invoked) the name of Yahweh (Genesis 12:1-9).

Here he dwelt for some time, until strife arose between his herdsmen and those of Lot. Abram thereupon proposed to Lot that they should separate, and allowed his nephew the first choice. Lot preferred the fertile land lying east of the Jordan River, whilst Abram, after receiving another promise from Yahweh, moved down to the oaks of Mamre in Hebron and built an altar.

In the subsequent history of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abram appears prominently in a passage where he intercedes with Yahweh on behalf of Sodom, and is promised that if ten righteous men can be found therein the city shall be preserved (18:16-33).

Driven by a famine to take refuge in Egypt (26:11, 41:57, 42:1), Abram feared lest his wife's beauty should arouse the evil designs of the Egyptians and thus endanger his own safety, and alleged that Sarai was his sister. This did not save her from the Pharaoh, who took her into the royal harem and enriched Abram with herds and servants. But when Yahweh "plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues" suspicion was aroused, and the Pharaoh rebuked the patriarch for his deceit and sent him away under an escort (12:10-13:1).

A similar experience is said to have happened to Abraham and Sarah at Gerar with the Philistine king Abimelech.

As Sarai was infertile, God's promise that Abraham's seed would inherit the land seemed incapable of fulfilment. Abram's sole heir was his servant, who was over his household, apparently a certain Eliezer of Damascus (15:2). Abraham is now promised as heir one of his own flesh, and a remarkable and solemn passage records how the promise was ratified by a covenant (See Genesis 15).

Sarai, in accordance with custom, gave to Abram her Egyptian handmaid Hagar, who, when she found she was with child, presumed upon her position to the extent that Sarai, unable to endure the reproach of barrenness (cf. the story of Hannah, 1 Samuel 1:6), dealt harshly with her and forced her to flee (16:1-14). Hagar is promised that her descendants will be too numerous to count, and she returns. Her son Ishmael thus was Abram's firstborn (and Islamic doctrine holds that he was the rightful heir). Hagar and Ishmael were eventually driven permanently away from Abram by Sarah (chapter 21).

The name Abraham was given to Abram (and the name Sarah to Sarai) at the same time as the covenant of circumcision (chapter 17), which is practiced in Judaism to this day. At this time Abraham was promised not only many descendants, but descendants through Sarah specifically, as well as the land where he was living, which was to belong to his descendants. The covenant was to be fulfilled through Isaac, though God promised that Ishmael would become a great nation as well. The covenant of circumcision (unlike the earlier promise) was two-sided and conditional: if Abraham and his descendants fulfilled their part of the covenant, Yahweh would be their God and give them the land.

The promise of a son to Sarah made Abraham "laugh", which became the name of the son of promise, Isaac. Sarah herself "laughs" at the idea, when Yahweh appears to Abraham at Mamre (18:1-15) and, when the child is born, cries "God hath made me laugh; every one that heareth will laugh at me" (21:6).

In Genesis 18, Abraham pleads with God not to destroy Sodom, and God agrees that he would not destroy the city if there were 50 righteous people in it, or 45, or 30, 20, even 10 righteous people. (Abraham's Nephew had been living in the city; see Lot.)

Some time after the birth of Isaac, Abraham was commanded by God to offer him up as a sacrifice in the land of Moriah. Proceeding to obey, he was prevented by an angel as he was about to sacrifice his son, and slew a ram which he found on the spot. As a reward for his obedience he received another promise of a numerous seed and abundant prosperity (22). Thence he returned to Beersheba. The near sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most challenging, and perhaps ethically troublesome, parts of the Bible. A separate entry exist on this topic.

The primary interest of the narrative now turns to Isaac. To his "only son" (22:2, 12) Abraham gave all he had, and dismissed the sons of his concubines to the lands outside Palestine; they were thus regarded as less intimately related to Isaac and his descendants (25:1-6). See for example Midianites, Sheba. For information about the Genesis narrative as it pertains to Isaac, see Isaac.

Sarah dies at an old age, and was buried in the cave of Machpelah near Hebron, which Abraham had purchased, along with the adjoining field, from Ephron the Hittite (Genesis 23). Here Abraham himself was buried. Centuries later the tomb became a place of pilgrimage and the traditional site was later marked by an Islamic mosque.

Abraham in Judaism

Abraham is considered the father of the Jewish nation, as their first Patriarch, and having a son (Isaac), who in turn gave birth to Jacob, and from there the Twelve Tribes. To father the nation, G-d "tested" Abraham with ten tests, the greatest of which being the sacrifice of his son Isaac. G-d promised the land of Israel to his children, and that is the first claim of the Jews to Israel.

Judaism ascribes a special trait to each Patriarch. Abraham's was kindness. Because fo this, Judaism considers kindness to be an inherent Jewish trait.

Jewish tradition teaches the origins of Abraham's monotheism. His father Terah owned a store that sold idols. Abraham (then Abram), at the age of three, started to question their authenticity. This culminating in Abraham destroying some idols.

Abraham was then brought to the king, and sentenced to death, along with his brother Haran, unless they recanted their position. Abraham did not, and was thrown into a fire. When Abraham exited unscathed, Haran also would not recant, and was thrown into the fire. Haran, who did not truly believe, died in the fire. This is hinted to in Genesis 11:28.

Abraham then went to Haran (the city, different name then his brother) with his father and brother. His father died there. G-d spoke to Abraham for the first time, and told him of great things He would give him if he would leave Haran. Abraham did. He was seventy-five during this affair.

Abraham started a school for teaching his beliefs in G-d, and some say he wrote the Sefer Yetzirah.

Jews today mention Abraham in their prayers, when praying to "the G-d of Abraham". And, because of Genesis 15:1, ask that G-d shield them, like he promsed to shield Abraham. Also, the epitome of his tests, the binding of Isaac on the altar, is mentioned many times in the Jewish liturgy.

Abraham in Christianity

Abraham stands out prominently as the recipient of the promises (Genesis 12:2-7, 13:14-17, 15, 17, 18:17-19, 22:17-18, 24:7). In the New Testament Abraham figures prominently as a man of faith (see e.g., Hebrews 11), and the apostle Paul uses him as an example of salvation by faith (in e.g. Galatians 3).

The orthodox view in Christianity is that the promises made to Abraham are still valid to the Jewish nation, though some remain as yet unfulfilled. (See for example Romans 11.)

However, amillenialists hold that the Christian Church has replaced Israel and receives the promises on her behalf. This view arises from an interpretation of Galatians 3:7-9, but it requires a very loose interpretation of the book of Revelation, ignores Romans 11 entirely, and is not accepted by most fundamental Christians. For further information on this debate, see dispensations and supersessionism.

Abraham in Islam

Abraham is very important to Islam, both in his own right and as the father of Ishmael, his firstborn son.

Abraham (Ibrahim) is considered one of the first Patriarchs of Islam (Most Muslims will admit a debt to other people found in the TaNaKh or Old Testament, such as Moses, as founding fathers of Islam). While most Muslims believe that Adam, the first man, was also the first Muslim (submitter to God), they universally agree that Abraham was a prophet of God (Allah is simply Arabic for God).

Most Muslims contest that the original text of the TaNaKh stated, in Hebrew, that Abraham sacrifice his "only son" to God. Since Isaac was Abraham's second son, there was no time at which he would have been Abraham's only son, which implies (to them, at least) that Ishmael was the intended sacrifice.

The entire episode of the sacrifice is regarded as a trial that Abraham had to face from God. It is celebrated by Muslims on the day of Eid ul-Adha. Muslims also believe that Abraham, along with his son Ishmael, constructed the Kaaba in Makkah.

He is one of the most important prophets in Islam, and Muslims have a specific dua that they recite daily which asks God to bless both Abraham and Muhammad. According to Islamic tradition, he is buried in Hebron. In the Masjid al Haram in Mecca, there is an area known as the "station of Ibrahim" (Maqam i Ibrahim), which supposidely bear an impression of his footprints.

Abraham and his descendants

This section still needs work.

Biblical narratives represent Abraham as an idealized sheikh (with one important exception, Gen. xiv., see below). As the father of Isaac and Ishmael, he is ultimately the common ancestor of the Israelites and their nomadic fierce neighbours. As the father of Midian, Sheba and other Arabian tribes (25:1-4), it seems that some degree of kinship was felt by the Hebrews with the dwellers of the more distant south, and it is characteristic of the genealogies that the mothers (Sarah, Hagar and Keturah) are in the descending scale as regards purity of blood.

Abraham is said to have come from Ur in Babylonia and Haran and thence to Canaan. Late tradition supposed that the migration was to escape Babylonian idolatry (Judith 5, Jubilees 12; cf. Joshua 24:2), and knew of Abraham's miraculous escape from death (an obscure reference to some act of deliverance in Isaiah 29:22). The route along the banks of the Euphrates from south to north was so frequently taken by migrating tribes that the tradition has nothing improbable in itself, but the prominence given in the older narratives to the view that Haran was the home gives this the preference. It was thence that Jacob, the father of the tribes of Israel, came and the route to Shechem and Bethel is precisely the same in both. A twofold migration is doubtful, and, from what is known of the situation in Palestine in the [[15th century BC]], is extremely improbable.

Further, there is yet another parallel in the story of the conquest by Joshua (q.v.), partly implied and partly actually detailed (cf. also Joshua 8:9 with Gen. 12:8, 13:3), whence it would appear that too much importance must not be laid upon any ethnological interpretation which fails to account for the three versions. That similar traditional elements have influenced them is not unlikely; but to recover the true historical foundation is difficult. The invasion or immigration of certain tribes from the east of the Jordan; the presence of Aramaean blood among the Israelites; the origin of the sanctity of venerable sites, -- these and other considerations may readily be found to account for the traditions.

Noteworthy coincidences in the lives of Abraham and Isaac, noticed above, point to the fluctuating state of traditions in the oral stage, or suggest that Abraham's life has been built up by borrowing from the common stock of popular lore. More original is the parting of Lot and Abraham at Bethel. The district was the scene of contests between Moab and the Hebrews (cf. perhaps Judges 3), and if this explains part of the story, the physical configuration of the Dead Sea may have led to the legend of the destruction of inhospitable and vicious cities.

Different writers have regarded the life of Abraham differently. He has been viewed as a chieftain of the Amorites, as the head of a great Semitic migration from Mesopotamia; or, since Ur and Haran were seats of Moon-worship, he has been identified with a moon-god. From the character of the literary evidence and the locale of the stories it has been held that Abraham was originally associated with Hebron. The double name Abram/Abraham has even suggested that two personages have been combined in the Biblical narrative; although this does not explain the change from Sarai to Sarah. But it is important to remember that the narratives are not contemporary, and that the interesting discovery of the name Abi-ramu (Abram) on Babylonian contracts of about 2000 BC does not prove the Abram of the Old Testament to be an historical person, even as the fact that there were "Amorites" in Babylonia at the same period does not make it certain that the patriarch was one of their number. One remarkable chapter associates Abraham with kings of Elam and the east (Genesis 14). No longer a peaceful sheikh but a warrior with a small army of 318 followers, he overthrows a combination of powerful monarchs who have ravaged the land. The genuineness of the narrative has been strenuously maintained, although upon insufficient grounds.

"It is generally recognized that this chapter holds quite an isolated place in the Pentateuchal history; it is the only passage which presents Abraham in the character of a warrior, and connects him with historical names and political movements, and there are no clear marks by which it can be assigned to any one of the documents of which Genesis is made up. Thus, while one school of interpreters finds in the chapter the earliest fragment of the political history of western Asia, some even holding with Ewald that the narrative is probably based on old Canaanite records, other critics, as Noldeke, regard the whole as unhistorical and comparatively late in origin. On the latter view, which finds its main support 1n the intrinsic difficulties of the narrative, it is scarcely possible to avoid the conclusion that the chapter is one of the latest additions to the Pentateuch (Wellhausen and many others)."

On the assumption that a recollection of some invasion in remote days may have been current, considerable interest is attached to the names. Of these, Amraphel, king of Shinar (i.e. Babylonia, Genesis 10:10), has been identified with Hammurabi, one of the greatest of the Babylonian kings (c. 2000 B.C.), and since he claims to have ruled as far west as the Mediterranean Sea, the equation has found considerable favour. Apart from chronological difficulties, the identification of the king and his country is far from certain, and at the most can only be regarded as possible. Arioch, king of Ellasar, has been connected with Eriaku of Larsa--the reading has been questioned---a contemporary with Hammurabi. Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, bears what is doubtless a genuine Elamite name. Finally, the name of Tid'al, king of Goiim, may be identical with a certain Tudhulu the son of Gazza, a warrior, but apparently not a king, who is mentioned in a Babylonian inscription, and Goiim may stand for Gutim, the Guti being a people who lived to the east of Kurdistan. Nevertheless, there is as yet no monumental evidence in favour of the genuineness of the story, and at the most it can only be said that the author (of whatever date) has derived his names from a trustworthy source, and in representing an invasion of Palestine by Babylonian overlords has given expression to a possible situation. The improbabilities and internal difficulties of the narrative remain untouched, only the bare outlines may very well be historical. If, as most critics agree, it is a historical romance (cf., e.g., the book of Judith), it is possible that a writer, preferably one who lived in the post-exilic age and was acquainted with Babylonian history, desired to enhance the greatness of Abraham by exhibiting his military success against the monarchs of the Tigris and Euphrates, the high esteem he enjoyed in Palestine and his lofty character as displayed in his interview with Melchizedek.

Modern Views of Abraham

This section could be expanded.

The importance of Abraham to three major world religions has understandably led to considerable modern debate. Here is an excellent example:

May I suggest a scholarly addition? There is considerable debate among scholars of the TaNaKh, or Old Testament, as to whether Abraham was a true monotheist (believer in one God).

Abraham's declaration of fealty was to "pray only to the god of his fathers". "God of his fathers" was a term used by many peoples at the time, and referred to many Gods, such as Yahweh (Jehovah), Ba'al, and so on. Technically, his statement that he would pray to only this god did not preclude belief in the existence of other deities, which would make Abraham a monolatrist (a person who believes in many deities, but only prays to one).

However, the religious of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all consider Abraham to be the first monotheist, and Jews and Muslims both claim Abraham as "founding patriarch" of their faiths."

Thank you, Tara El Masry

It should be noted that some of the above should be taken cum grano salis. For example, far from all of Christianity considering Abraham the first monotheist, some argue that they are not aware any Christian group that believes this. (Some liberals will all tell you Abraham was not a monotheist, and some conservatives will all tell you that the first monotheist was Adam.) It is certainly true, however, that there has come to be considerable debate on this increasingly controversial topic, which demonstrates the epistemological chasm between conservatives and liberals within Christianity.


See also Abrahamic religions, Abraham's bosom.