1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Abraham
ABRAHAM, or Abram (Hebrew for “father is high”), the ancestor of the Israelites, the first of the great Biblical patriarchs. His life as narrated in the book of Genesis reflects the traditions of different ages. It is the latest writer (P) who mentions Abram (the original form of the name), Nahor and Ḥaran, sons of Terah, at the close of a genealogy of the sons of Shem, which includes among its members Eber the eponym of the Hebrews. Terah is said to have come from Ur of the Chaldees, usually identified with Mukayyar in south Babylonia. He migrated to Haran in Mesopotamia, apparently the classical Carrhae, on a branch of the Ḥabor. Thence, after a short stay, Abram with his wife Sarai, and Lot the son of Ḥaran, and all their followers, departed for Canaan. The oldest tradition does not know of this twofold move, and seems to locate Abram’s birthplace and the homes of his kindred at Ḥaran (Gen. xxiv. 4, 7, xxvii. 43). At the divine command, and encouraged by the promise that Yahweh would make of him, although hitherto childless, a great nation, he journeyed down to Shechem, and at the sacred tree (cf. xxxv. 4, Josh. xxiv. 26, Judg. ix. 6) received a new promise that the land would be given unto his seed. 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 (Gen. xii. 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, 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 fine 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 (xviii. 16-33).
A peculiar passage, more valuable for the light it throws upon primitive ideas than for its contribution to the history of Abram, narrates the patriarch’s visit to Egypt. Driven by a famine to take refuge in Egypt (cf. xxvi. 1, xli. 57, xlii. 1), he 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 (xii. 10-xiii. 1). This story of Abram and his increased wealth (xiii. 2) receives no comment at the hands of the narrator, and in its present position would make Sarai over sixty years of age (xii. 4, xvii. 1, 17). A similar experience is said to have happened to Abraham and Sarah at Gerar with the Philistine king Abimelech (xx. E), but the tone of the narrative is noticeably more advanced, and the presents which the patriarch receives are compensation for the king’s offence. Here, however, Sarah has reached her ninetieth year (xvii. 17). (The dates are due to the post-exilic framework in which the stories are inserted.) Still another episode of the same nature is recorded of Isaac and Rebekah at Gerar, also with Abimelech. Ethically it is the loftiest, and Isaac obtains his wealth simply through his successful farming. Arising out of the incident is an account of a covenant between Abimelech and Isaac (xxvi. 16-33, J), a duplicate of which is placed in the time of Abraham (xxi. 22-34, J and E). Beersheba, which figures in both, is celebrated by the planting of a sacred tree and (like Bethel) by the invocation of the name of Yahweh. This district is the scene of the birth of Ishmael and Isaac. As Sarai was barren (cf. xi. 30) the promise that his seed should possess the land seemed incapable of fulfilment. According to one rather obscure narrative, Abram’s sole heir was the servant, who was over his household, apparently a certain Eliezer of Damascus (xv. 2, the text is corrupt). He 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. The description is particularly noteworthy for the sudden appearance of birds of prey, which attempted to carry off the victims of the sacrificial covenant. The interpretation of the evil omen is explained by an allusion to the bondage of the Israelites in Egypt and their return in the fourth generation (xv. 16; contrast v. 13, after four hundred years; the chapter is extremely intricate and has the appearance of being of secondary origin). The main narrative now relates how 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 Sam. i. 6), dealt harshly with her and forced her to flee (xvi. 1-14, J; on the details see Ishmael.) Another tradition places the expulsion of Hagar after the birth of Isaac. It was thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, according to the latest narratives, that God appeared unto Abram with a renewed promise that his posterity should inhabit the land. To mark the solemnity of the occasion, the patriarch’s name was changed to Abraham, and that of his wife to Sarah. A covenant was concluded with him for all time, and as a sign thereof the rite of circumcision was instituted (xvii. P). The promise of a son to Sarah made Abraham “laugh”, a punning allusion to the name Isaac (q.v.) which appears again in other forms. Thus, it is Sarah herself who “laughs” at the idea, when Yahweh appears to Abraham at Mamre (xviii. 1-15, J), or who, when the child is horn cries “God hath made me laugh; every one that heareth will laugh at me” (xxi. 6, E). Finally, there is yet another story which attributes the flight of Hagar and Ishmael to Sarah’s jealousy at the sight of Ishmael’s “mocking” (rather dancing or playing, the intensive form of the verb “to laugh”) on the feast day when Isaac was weaned (xxi. 8 sqq.). But this last story is clearly out of place, since a child who was then fourteen years old (cf. xvii. 24, xxi. 5) could scarcely be described as a weak babe who had to be carried (xxi. 14; see the commentaries).
Abraham was now commanded by God to offer up Isaac 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 (xxii. E). Thence he returned to Beersheba. The story is one of the few told by E, and significantly teaches that human sacrifice was not required by the Almighty (cf. Mic. vi. 7 seq.). The interest of the narrative now extends to Isaac alone. To his “only son” (cp. xxii. 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 (xxv. 1-4, 6). The measures taken by the patriarch for the marriage of Isaac are circumstantially described. His head-servant was sent to his master’s country and kindred to find a suitable bride, and the necessary preparation for the story is contained in the description of Nahor’s family (xxii. 20-24). The picturesque account of the meeting with Rebekah throws interesting light on oriental custom. Marriage with one’s own folk (cf. Gen. xxvii. 46, xxix. 19; Judg. xiv. 3), and especially with a cousin, is recommended now even as in the past. For its charm the story is comparable with the account of Jacob’s experiences in the same land (xxix.). For the completion of the history of Abraham the compiler of Genesis has used P’s narrative. Sarah is said to have died at a good old age, and was buried in the cave of Machpelah near Hebron, which the patriarch had purchased, with the adjoining field, from Ephron the Hittite (xxiii.); and here he himself was buried. Centuries later the tomb became a place of pilgrimage and the traditional site is marked by a fine mosque.
The story of Abraham is of greater value for the study of Old Testament theology than for the history of Israel. He became to the Hebrews the embodiment of their ideals, and stood at their head as the founder of the nation, the one to whom Yahweh had manifested his love by frequent promises and covenants. From the time when he was bidden to leave his country to enter the unknown land, Yahweh was ever present to encourage him to trust in the future when his posterity should possess the land, and so, in its bitterest hours, Israel could turn for consolation to the promises of the past which enshrined in Abraham its hopes for the future. Not only is Abraham the founder of religion, but he, of all the patriarchal figures, stands out most prominently as the recipient of the promises (xii. 2 seq. 7, xiii. 14-17, xv., xvii., xviii. 17-19, xxii. 17 seq.; cf. xxiv. 7), and these the apostle Paul associates with the coming of Christ, and, adopting a characteristic and artificial style of interpretation prevalent in his time, endeavours to force a Messianic interpretation out of them.
For the history of the Hebrews the life of Abraham is of the same value as other stories of traditional ancestors. The narratives, viewed dispassionately, represent him as an idealized sheikh (with one important exception, Gen. xiv., see below), about whose person a number of stories have gathered. As the father of Isaac and Ishmael, he is ultimately the common ancestor of the Israelites and their nomadic fierce neighbours, men roving unrestrainedly like the wild ass, troubled by and troubling every one (xvi. 12). As the father of Midian, Sheba and other Arabian tribes (xxv. 1-4), it is evident 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. This great ancestral figure came, it was said, from Ur in Babylonia and Ḥaran and thence to Canaan. Late tradition supposed that the migration was to escape Babylonian idolatry (Judith v., Jubilees xii.; cf. Josh. xxiv. 2), and knew of Abraham’s miraculous escape from death (an obscure reference to some act of deliverance in Is. xxix. 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 Ḥaran 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 b.c., 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 Josh. viii. 9 with Gen. xii. 8, xiii. 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 (see Jacob); 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 Judg. iii.), 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 (see Sodom and Gomorrah.)
Different writers have regarded the life of Abraham differently. He has been viewed as a chieftain of the Amorites (q.v.), as the head of a great Semitic migration from Mesopotamia; or, since Ur and Ḥaran 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 b.c. 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 (Gen. xiv.). 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 Nöldeke, regard the whole as unhistorical and comparatively late in origin. On the latter view, which finds its main support in 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, Gen. x. 10), has been identified with Khammurabi, 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 Khammurabi. 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 Tudḥulu 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.
- The name is not spelt with the same guttural as Ḥaran the son of Terah.
- Barrenness is a motif which recurs in the stories of Rebekah, Rachel, the mother of Samson, and Hannah (Gen. xxv. 21, xxix. 31; Judg. xiii. 2; 1 Sam. i. 5).
- Abram’s connexion with Damascus is supplemented in the traditions of Nicolaus of Damascus as cited by Josephus (Antiq. i. 7. 2).
- Abram (or Abiram) is a familiar and old-attested name meaning “(my) father is exalted”; the meaning of Abraham is obscure and the explanation Gen. xvii. 3 is mere word-play. It is possible that rāhām was originally only a dialectical form of rām.
- See Sir Charles Warren’s description, Hasting’s Dict. Bible, vol. iii. pp. 200 seq. The so-called Babylonian colouring of Gen. xxiii. has been much exaggerated; see S. R. Driver, Genesis, ad loc.; S. A. Cook, Laws of Moses, p. 208.
- See H. St. J. Thackeray, Relation of St Paul to Contemporary Jewish Thought, p. 69 seq. (1900).
- On the other hand, the coincidences in xx. xxi. are due to E, who is also the author of xxii. Apart from these the narratives of Abraham are from J and P.
- According to Breasted (Amer. Journ. of Sem. Lit., 1904, p. 36), the “field of Abram” occurs among the places mentioned in the list of the Egyptian king Shishak (No. 71-2) in the 10th century. See also his History of Egypt, p. 530.
- The number is precisely that of the total numerical value of the consonants of the name “Eliezer” (Gen. xv. 2); an astral signification has also been found.
- W. R. Smith, Ency. Brit. (9th ed., 1883), art. “Melchizedek.”
- That the names may be those of historical personages is no proof of historical accuracy: “We cannot therefore conclude that the whole account is accurate history, any more than we can argue that Sir Walter Scott’s Anne of Geierstein is throughout a correct account of actual events because we know that Charles the Bold and Margaret of Anjou were real people” (W. H. Bennett, Century Bible: Genesis, p. 186).