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
- 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).