People

Abraham by Ronald Hendel

Abraham is remembered in the Bible as the father of faith and the ancestor of the Israelites (Gen 12-24; Rom 4:1-12). According to Genesis, God called him from his home in Mesopotamia to journey to the promised land, where God promised to multiply Abraham’s offspring and make them into a great people and a blessing to the nations. The three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—call Abraham their father. The importance of Abraham to these religions raises many questions, both theological and historical.

Was Abraham the first monotheist?

The book of Joshua says that when God called Abraham from Mesopotamia, Abraham’s family was polytheistic: they “served other gods” (Josh 24:2). But this topic doesn’t come up in the stories about Abraham in Genesis. God calls Abraham and enters into a covenant with him and his family (Gen 12, Gen 15, Gen 17). This is an exclusive relationship between one god and a particular family. In the ancient world, these features belong to the category of family religion, in which the family god is often called “the god of the father.” In addition to the customs of family religion, ancient people also worshiped the gods of tribe, city, or state. In the stories of Abraham, however, the god of the father is also “God Most High, maker of heaven and earth” (Gen 14:19). In other words, the Abraham story shows the merger of family and state religion, yielding the worship of a single god. From the biblical perspective, Abraham was the first monotheist.

Did Abraham actually exist?

Abraham certainly exists in biblical memory. The twelve tribes of Israel recalled him as their first patriarch. But tribal memories in the ancient world were not always historically accurate—they were a mixture of history, legend, and myth. Such traditional stories reshape the past so that it remains relevant for the present. The stories of Abraham are not immune to these cultural changes. As a result, we do not know whether Abraham actually existed. But even if he did, many (or most) of the details in the Abraham stories are legendary and not historical. Some details that do seem to retain ancient historical memories are the importance of upper Mesopotamia (the region of Haran) as the ancestral homeland and the worship of a deity named El (“God”). Both of these features are important in Amorite tribal cultures of the early second millennium B.C.E. So it seems that ancient details are occasionally preserved in the stories. But the stories are not about a half-forgotten Amorite tribal figure; they are about the biblical Abraham, who is the patriarch of Israel and the chosen one of God.

The biblical Abraham may not have actually existed, but his memory certainly does in the three great monotheistic religions. In classical Judaism, interpreters elaborated on the biblical stories, making Abraham a dedicated monotheist even before God chose him. By doing so, these interpreters clarified why God chose Abraham: because he was already the first monotheist! In early Christianity, the apostle Paul drew on the Abraham story to affirm that faith is independent of works, because Abraham trusted in God before he was commanded to circumcise himself and his sons (Rom 4:1-12). In Islam, Abraham’s oldest son, Ishmael—the ancestor of the Arabs—inherits the blessing, rather than the younger son, Isaac. God commands Abraham to sacrifice Ishmael, and after the beloved son is saved, Abraham and Ishmael journey to Arabia and build the holy shrine (the Kaaba) in Mecca.

Ronald Hendel, "Abraham", n.p. [cited 18 Jan 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/abraham

Contributors

Ronald Hendel

Ronald Hendel
Professor, University of California, Berkeley

Ronald Hendel is the Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is The Book of Genesis: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2012).

Abraham, the first patriarch in the book of Genesis, is a figure of memory, legend, and faith.

Did you know…?

  • Abraham is the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?
  • Abraham is portrayed as the first monotheist?
  • The stories of Abraham are a mixture of history, folklore, and fiction?

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

Of or related to a religious system characterized by belief in the existence of a single deity.

The land that Yahweh promised to Abraham in Genesis, also called Canaan.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Gen 12-24

The Call of Abram


1Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.

2I will make of y ... View more

Rom 4:1-12

The Example of Abraham


1What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?

2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has someth ... View more

A minor deity personally attached to a particular family; often represented by venerated idols (cf. Genesis 31:19-35).

Josh 24:2

2And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphra ... View more

Gen 12

The Call of Abram


1Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.

2I will make of y ... View more

Gen 15

God's Covenant with Abram


1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be v ... View more

Gen 17

The Sign of the Covenant


1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameles ... View more

Gen 14:19

19He blessed him and said,


“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,


maker of heaven and earth;

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

A building in Mecca, Saudi Arabia that is one of the most sacred sites in Islam. A pilgrimage to the Kaaba, at least once in a lifetime, is mandatory for all Muslims who are able to go.

A city in present-day Saudi Arabia that is a holy destination for Muslim pilgrims.

Related to tribes, especially the so-called ten tribes of Israel.

Rom 4:1-12

The Example of Abraham


1What then are we to say was gained by Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh?

2For if Abraham was justified by works, he has someth ... View more

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.