By Dr. John S. Knox
Historian and Theologian
In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Abraham is a venerated patriarch whose relationship with God provides the foundational story for God’s beneficial relationship with humanity. According to biblical tradition (and some say myth), Abraham (c. 20th century BCE) was born in or near the city of Ur in Mesopotamia, most likely in southern Chaldea. Abraham (originally named Abram), married his half-sister, Sarah (originally named Sarai) and began a long journey from Mesopotamia to Haran, and then later to Canaan and Egypt. Detailed in the book of Genesis, chapters 12–25, Abraham’s name comes to mean “Father of a multitude” and/or “the friend of God.” His journey, as depicted in the Bible, is a long and dramatic one, with Abraham and Sarah encountering many different cultures, customs, and people groups along the Fertile Crescent from Mesopotamia to Egypt.
The Traditional Story of Abraham
The Bible notes that at age 75, Abraham received a divine invitation or calling from God (Yahweh) to travel to a distant land where God would reward him beyond measure. Genesis 12:1–3 states:
I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (12:2-3)
Despite the inherent dangers of traveling at such an old age and through unknown and unfriendly territory, Abraham trusted God and took his entire family (including his father and nephew Lot) and personal possessions on his trek to this promised land.
The first part of the trip purportedly took them to Haran, in northern Mesopotamia, where his father, Terah, died at age 205. In the second part of the trip, Abraham’s caravan entered and toured through Canaan, where God appeared to Abraham, saying, “To your offspring I will give this land” (12:7). In celebration and worship, Abraham built an altar to God and then “went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east” (12:8). As earlier, Genesis notes that Abraham built another altar to God before moving again to the Negev, southwest of the Dead Sea.
Masquerade in Egypt
A sad-but-normal part of ancient Middle Eastern existence, a terrible famine swept through Canaan, and Abraham and his family escaped to Egypt for rescue and relief. The move was far from reassuring as Abraham began to fear for his life because of the beauty of his 65-year-old wife. Abraham asserted, “When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live” (12:12).
In shrewdness or out of cowardice, Abraham instructed his wife to “pretend” to be his sister, which was already factually true, Sarah being his half-sister. Abraham’s concerns were justified, apparently, because after they entered Egypt, “the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. And when the Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh [possibly Senusret II, who ruled Egypt from 1897-1878 BCE], and she was taken into his palace” (12:14–15). For Abraham, this was not the worst of situations for he received many gifts from Pharaoh, including cattle and servants.
Still, the Bible recounts that God was not pleased with the scenario surrounding Abraham and Sarah. The Pharaoh and his household soon experienced horrible plagues, which alerted him to Abraham’s ruse. Pharaoh exclaimed, “What have you done to me?” (12:18), shames Abraham for his deception, and demands that they both leave (although he allows Abraham to keep his gifts, interestingly). Thereafter, Genesis records that “Abraham went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he had, and Lot went with him. Abram had become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold” (13:1-2).
Returning to Canaan, Abraham and his tribe thrive and expand even more than before, which leads to intertribal bickering and competition between Abraham and Lot’s shepherds over grazing lands for their ever-increasing herds. Genesis states:
But the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together. And quarreling arose between Abram’s herders and Lot’s. (13:5–7)
Thus, the two split up and Abraham chose the Plain of Hebron to call “home,” and Lot chose the Plain of Sodom, which would end up a disastrous choice for Lot and his family.
One of the central parts of the story of Abraham and Sarah concerns their inability to conceive a child, which was very important in antiquity—both socially and for survival. Childlessness and barrenness in the Patriarchal Age was considered a sign of shame upon the woman, typically the result of undisclosed sin in her life. Additionally, children were considered a blessing and a form of social security, insuring protection and care in people’s old age. Understandably, in Genesis 15:1, Abraham laments:
Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus? … You have given me no children; so, a servant in my household will be my heir. (2–3)
The Bible once again provides a glimpse into the intimate relationship between Abraham and his deity with God proclaiming, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (1), and Abraham taking God at his word, which “[God] credited it to him as righteousness” (15:6). Abraham’s wife, Sarah, however, was less patient and more desperate to have a child. Herself apparently barren and of advanced years, Sarah orders Abraham to have sexual relations with their Egyptian slave, Hagar, whose child Sarah would take to raise as her own.
Although this offends modern sensibilities for its cruelty and exploitation, sexual encounters between slaves and owners were not an unusual event; as a slave, Hagar had few (if any) rights of ownership. Additionally, such a liaison provided deeper integration into the household and could create greater social security for the slave. Still, biological and emotional bonds between mothers and their children are very strong, so (understandably) Sarah and Hagar grew to dislike each other, immensely, ending with taunting from Hagar and physical abuse from Sarah upon each other.
Hagar, the Runaway Slave
The Bible states, “Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so, she fled from her” (16:7), and went out into the desert, dangerously, without proper supplies. Fortunately for Hagar, according to the biblical text, God sent an angel of the Lord to rescue and restore her to Sarah. He said, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her … I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count” (16:9–10). This adds another cultural wrinkle to the tale, as slavery was an integral part of ancient existence, with slavery providing key benefits that accompanied its social restrictions for many people (and especially for women).
This leads to another of the most poignant moments of the Bible, when Hagar gives God a name – El Roi. She states, “You are the God who sees me … I have now seen the One who sees me” (16:13). In an era where slaves were considered mere property and women were relegated to a lower social class, the Bible speaks of God’s great mercy and compassion for Hagar despite her lowly position, affirming her humanity and value in the world.
Hagar returned to Sarah and delivered her child to Abraham, age 86, who God instructed to name the child, “Ishmael” (16:11). Although he would eventually become the father of the Arab nations, the Hebrew scripture described Ishmael as “a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers” (16:12).
Covenant of Circumcision
Some years later, Genesis records that God expanded his covenant with Abraham, charging him to “walk before me faithfully and be blameless. Then, I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers” (17:1–2). Abraham prostrated himself in reverence as God then described this new eternal covenant between them that required a lengthening of his name officially to “Abraham,” but a shortening of his anatomy. God proclaimed:
You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come, every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner – those who are not your offspring. (17:11–12)
This was to be Abraham and his nation’s community agreement with God, a physical token and expression of their love and commitment to each other. With this sacrifice and serious expression of devotion and obedience, God would bless the nation as he was going to bless Abraham and Sarah, with a child of their own, finally.
Both nearly a hundred years old, the prospect of getting pregnant and delivering that child seemed an impossibility. In fact, when he heard the news that they would be parents, “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed” (17:17) – as did Sarah. Still, the Bible records that God assured the elderly couple, “But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year” (17:20–21). Obedient to the end, Abraham circumcised his son, Ishmael, as well as all the men in his tribe. He, too, was circumcised at age 99, showing his great love and a cultural custom that was passed down from generation to generation even into present times.
Another Masquerade for Abimelech
Despite the promises of God noted in the Bible, Abraham continued to be apprehensive about the safety of him and his household. Thus, when Abraham traveled into the region of Gerar, old fears re-emerged concerning the beauty of his wife and the threat of others who would kill him to attain Sarah, such as Abimelech, the King of Gerar, who “sent for Sarah and took her” (20:2). Once again, Abraham passed Sarah off as his sister (perhaps because it worked out so well for him in Egypt). This time, however, the Bible records that God warned Abimelech to not touch Sarah in a troubling dream.
In this nocturnal dialogue with God, Abimelech pleaded his case, of which God agrees with his potential liaison with Sarah being more about the lies of Abraham (and Sarah) than the king’s lusts. Still, God responds:
Yes, I know you did this with a clear conscience and so I have kept you from sinning against me. That is why I did not let you touch her. Now return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, and he will pray for you and you will live. But if you do not return her, you may be sure that you and all who belong to you will die.” (vv. 20:6-7)
As with Pharaoh, Abimelech chastised Abraham, who shares his fears with the king, but Abimelech restored Sarah to Abraham with her honor. More than that, the king gave Abraham gifts of sheep, cattle, female slaves, and riches, saying, “My land is before you; live wherever you like” (v. 20:15). Abraham, also wanting to make things right, prayed for Abimelech and his family who were healed from their short-lived curse of childlessness.
A Promise is Fulfilled
Despite Abraham’s insecurity and foolishness, Genesis indicates that God fulfills his promise to the Covenant couple and Isaac is born, whose name means “Laughter,” because Sarah laughed when she heard that she was going to become pregnant at such an old age. Abraham, now 100 years old, obeys God’s commandment and circumcised Isaac according to the Covenant, and Isaac “grew and was weaned” (v. 21:8). Abraham’s family story is not over, though. Out of jealousy and insecurity, no doubt, Hagar the Egyptian mocked Isaac and Sarah, which caught the attention of Sarah who had enough of her slave’s insolent ways and demanded Abraham send them away. Genesis states, “The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son” (21:11), but God reassured Abraham that Ishmael would be taken care of and blessed, greatly.
Once again, Hagar and her child are struggling for survival in the desert, dying of thirst, and once again, God sends an angel to rescue her and Ishmael, who says, “Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation” (21:17–18). God then provides a well of water for them to quench their thirst and cool their bodies. Genesis states, “God was with the boy [Ishmael] as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer” (21:20).
One of the more controversial passages in the Bible concerns God’s commandment that Abraham sacrifice his son, Isaac – the child of the Promise. God said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you” (22:2). Interestingly, the passage does not record Abraham arguing with God although he must have been tremendously conflicted and sad about God’s order to him.
The Sacrifice of Isaac
The next day, Abraham took his son and two servants on a trip to the mountain that God had told him to offer the sacrifice of his son. Questions remain as to the age of Isaac with some scholars saying that he was still just a boy, while others say he was nearing “manhood youth.” Regardless, Isaac was unaware of God’s sacrificial plan for him, and asked his father, “Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” (21:7), to which Abraham replied, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (21:8), which many Christians have asserted is a foreshadowing of the event to Jesus’ sacrifice upon the Cross as reported in the New Testament.
Regardless, after shrewdly tiring out Isaac by making him carry the wood for his sacrifice up the mountain, “Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son” (21:9–10), but an angel of the Lord stopped him and commended him for his willingness to sacrifice his son out of obedience and fear (respect) of God. The angel of the Lord said to Abraham:
Because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as sand on the seashore (21:16–17).
Abraham’s story begins to wind down with the death of Sarah at age 127, who died at Hebron and was buried in the Cave of Machpelah, which Abraham purchased from the Hittites, and where all the Patriarchs and Matriarchs will be buried beside Rachel. Its location is still unverified although some scholars claimed to have discovered it in the 1800s CE, claiming that it is underneath a massive building originally built by Herod and now covered by a Muslim mosque from the Saladin era.
Genesis 25 reports that Abraham remarried after Sarah’s death (or married another woman while still married to Sarah) at age 137. His second wife’s name was Keturah and they had six children together: “Zimran, Jokshn, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah” (25:2). Still, according to Judeo tradition, Isaac was Abraham’s main heir, the Child of the Promise. Thus, when Abraham died at 175 years, “a good old age” (25:7–8), all his possessions went to Isaac, including the blessing of God through the Covenant. Still, in a sweet display of mournful unity, “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him the Cave of Machpelah near Mamre, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, the field Abraham bought from the Hittites” (25:9–10).
The Epigraphical and Archeological Evidence for the Patriarch Abraham
As with other ancient biblical figures, little if any direct archeological evidence exists concerning Abraham. By their very nature, nomadic tribes leave little permanent buildings or religious artifacts establishing their existence. In the desert, all resources are precious and indispensable to the life of the tribal community. That being said, several archeological finds (old and more recent) indirectly affirm the existence of people and places that Abraham would have encountered in his journeys depicted in the Bible.
To wit, archeologists have confirmed the existence of a city complex near the ancient city of Ur in southern Iraq that would have been in existence during Abraham’s journey, references in the Tablets of Ebla that seem to show a monotheistic understanding of God despite the polytheism of 20th century BCE Middle Eastern culture, thousands of clay tablets found at Mari in modern-day Syria that include terminology found in the biblical story of Abraham, and scholars point to historical connections to the Amorite exodus and migration occurring around 2100-1900 BCE.
- Goodnight, M. “Is There Archaeological Evidence for Abraham?” Accessed 19 Jun 2020.
- Miller, Nancy. “Patriarchal Burial Site Explored for First Time in 700 Years” Accessed 19 Jun 2020.
- Oren, D. E., Morrison, M.A. and Gilead, I. “Land of Gerar Expedition: Preliminary Report for the Seasons of 1982 and 1983 Accessed 19 Jun 2020.
- Rosen, Steven A. “Nomads in Archaeology: A Response to Finkelstein and Perevolotsky” Accessed 19 Jun 2020.
- Sarna, Nahum. “Genesis Chapter 23: The Cave of Machpelah” Accessed 19 Jun 2020.
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- Joseph M. Holden & Norman Geisler & Walter C. Kaiser Jr. The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible. Harvest House Publishers, 2013.
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- Phillips, Anthony. “Difficult Text: The Sacrifice of Isaac – Genesis 22.” Theology, 118/6/2015, pp. 438-440.
- Price, J. Randall & House, H. Wayne. Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology. Zondervan Academic, 2017.
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- Tim Tsohantaridis & John Knox. God in the Details. Kendall Hunt Publishing, 2018.
Originally published by the Ancient History Encyclopedia, 06.22.2020, under a Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.