In Gen 17:5, God renames Abram, the Israelite patriarch: “No longer shall your name be Abram,” God tells him, “but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor [Hebrew ’ab] of a multitude [Hebrew hamon] of nations.” Although this is probably a later (and not entirely convincing) attempt to explain the name of the first ancestor of the Israelite people, it is nevertheless a fitting moniker for the first person with whom God chooses to make a covenant.
We meet Abraham through his family: he is introduced near the end of a long genealogy that includes numerous ancestors as well as his two brothers, his wife, two nieces (one of whom is also a sister-in-law), and a nephew (Gen 11:22-32). In the same chapter, we learn that Abraham’s wife Sarah is barren. Thus, when God promises Abraham that he will possess the land of Canaan and will be the forebear of a large nation, we know there will be obstacles as he sets out to begin his family.
With Sarah unable to bear a child, Abraham takes a concubine, Hagar, who bears his first son, Ishmael. Taking a concubine, or a secondary wife, was an accepted practice in the ancient Near East and seems to have been a common solution when the first wife could not have children. Although Abraham and Sarah later disinherit Ishmael, he is the ancestor of the Ishmaelites, a neighboring nomadic people from whom Arab peoples trace their descent; Ishmael is also an important figure in the Qur’an. Abraham’s family continues with his second son, Isaac, born to Sarah at the age of ninety—with God’s intervention. The theme of barrenness and miraculous birth appears with all of the matriarchs in Genesis (and with characters in other biblical books, like Hannah in the book of Samuel) and highlights the importance of the child who is ultimately born. It is through Isaac and one of his sons, Jacob, that the promise and the covenant of Yahweh are passed down to the whole Israelite people. This passing over of the older son in favor of the younger is another common theme in the Hebrew Bible: Jacob, Judah, and David are all younger sons.
In a final episode, Abraham marries a second wife, Keturah, who bears him six children (Gen 25:1-4). These children, too, are the ancestors of various Arabian groups, including the Midianites. And Gen 25:6 mentions Abraham’s sons by concubines, suggesting that he had even more children; they, too, are residents of the “east country.” When all of these descendants are taken into account, the size of Abraham’s family—encompassing ancient Israel and numerous peoples of the Arabian Peninsula—is enormous.
However, Abraham has a bad habit of putting his family in peril. Twice when visiting a foreign land, he has Sarah tell the locals that they are brother and sister, with the result that she is taken into the harem of the foreign king (Gen 12, Gen 20). When Sarah feels that Isaac’s inheritance is threatened by Ishmael, Abraham heeds her wishes and expels Ishmael and Hagar; the infant Ishmael nearly perishes in the wilderness where they flee (Gen 21). And, in perhaps the most famous episode of child endangerment in the Hebrew Bible, Abraham nearly sacrifices his beloved son Isaac (Gen 22). All of these episodes are intended not to make Abraham look reckless but rather to show how precious his family is, because he so often comes close to losing it. Traditionally, the near-sacrifice also demonstrates Abraham’s faith in heeding God’s instruction to kill Isaac—and thus proves his worthiness as the founding father of the Israelite lineage.