The Old Testament. This man, whose name may mean "the father is exalted, " was the first of the great patriarchs of Israel. In the ancient Near East a patriarch was the leader or ancestor of a family, but Abraham exceeded this status by becoming the progenitor of one specific nation, the Hebrews, as well as of other peoples. The story of his life ( Gen 11:27b-25:12 ) appears to comprise one of eleven Mesopotamian tablets underlying Genesis, and in typical fashion probably had a title ("Abram, Nahor and Haran, 11:27b ) and a concluding colophon "these are the generations of" (KJV), that is, "family histories of" ( 25:12 ). The material was apparently compiled in the time of Isaac at Beer Lahai Roi ( Gen 25:11 ), the finished unit probably comprising a group of smaller tablets linked in a series.
The date of Abraham's birth in Ur "of the Chaldees" (i.e., southern Ur) is not known, but can be computed roughly from archeological evidence at Bab-edh-Dhra, near Sodom. The latter was destroyed about 1900 b.c. No monuments to him have survived, but discoveries at Mari, Nuzi, and elsewhere have shown that his activities were consistent with Middle Bronze Age Mesopotamian life (ca. 2000-1500 b.c.). As such, Abraham emerged from a background of high culture, and was not the illiterate shepherd envisaged by some nineteenth-century literary critics.
Abraham is of profound religious significance because he was the historic ancestor of the twelve tribes, the "seed of Abraham, " who regularly described their God as "the God of Abraham." By virtue of being children of divine promise ( Gen 12:2 ), the Israelites were living proof of God's existence and power in human society. This general promise was made specific by means of a covenant between God and Abraham ( Gen 15:8-18 ; 17:1-14 ), which provided the offspring of the patriarch with a large tract of territory. Abraham was to father many nations ( Gen 17:5 ), and the covenant that was to be established with him and his seed was to be perpetual in nature.
The idea of a covenant, or binding agreement between two parties, was already familiar in the early Middle Bronze Age, and by mutual agreement involved penalties if one of the participants defaulted. It was normally marked by some form of ritual ( Gen 15:9-17 ), which emphasized the solemnity and significance of the occasion. Abraham was instructed to keep the covenant obligations, and as a material token the institution of circumcision was imposed upon him and his descendants. When performed, this procedure constituted formal indication of membership within the Israelite community.
Although coming from a background of polytheism and idolatry at Ur, Abraham had been reared in the faith of the one true God by his father Terah. But when he received the Lord's call at a mature stage of his life, he recognized that he had been chosen to implement a specific part of God's plan for human destiny. He was not to fulfill it alone, because the Lord undertook to go with him ( Gen 12:4 ). He was required to be consistently obedient to God's will, however difficult that might be, and to trust without question the guidance he would receive against the background of the covenant framework. It should be noted that Abraham was not asked to be obedient as a condition of the covenant. Rather, his response in faith was based upon what he already knew about the God of his ancestors, and was thus a matter of free choice. The importance of strict obedience to the Lord's injunctions assumes early prominence in Old Testament theology. Put simply, without unquestioning submission to God's stipulations there could be neither fellowship with the Lord nor blessings poured out upon the covenant people.
The continuing faith Abraham had can be illustrated by reference to four specific occasions in his life. The first was God's command to leave both family and homeland and migrate to a strange country ( Gen 12:1 ). The severing of emotional ties was bound to be costly, yet Abraham went forward without once questioning God's directives, believing instead in God's power to fulfill his promises.
The second occasion actually completed the first, consisting of Abraham's parting company with his nephew Lot ( Gen 13:1-16 ) because of friction between their herdsmen. Although doubtless distressed at withdrawing from a relative, Abraham behaved generously in allowing Lot to choose the territory that he preferred ( Gen 13:8-11 ), whereupon God renewed his promises of land and offspring to the childless Abraham.
The third was yet another occasion when the covenant was confirmed, this time in greater detail ( Gen 17:1-27 ). God promised Abraham a son who would be named Isaac ( Gen 17:16 ), and who would be the inheritor of the everlasting covenant ( Genesis 17:19 Genesis 17:21 ). It seems that Abraham assumed that Ishmael was to function in that capacity, but when this was denied he acknowledged the Lord's will obediently, and awaited in faith the fulfillment of the promise that all the nations of the earth would be blessed in him ( Gen 18:18 ).
Perhaps the most serious test of Abraham's obedience and faith came when God ordered him to offer up in sacrifice the very one through whom the covenant was to be perpetuated: his son Isaac ( Gen 22:1-2 ). Dutifully and without questioning, Abraham followed the ritual procedure, and at the climactic moment God intervened on behalf of Isaac ( Gen 22:11 ), stating that Abraham had passed the divinely imposed test of submission and faith ( Gen 22:12 ). For such implicit obedience Abraham was to become an example of covenant fidelity. In 2 Chronicles 20:7 (cf. James 2:23 ) Abraham is described as the "friends" of God. As late as New Testament times, he and Sarah were lauded as people who lived and died in an attitude of faith ( Heb 11:8-18 ).
The New Testament If God's plan for human salvation was to be implemented, the Lord had to be able to trust those whom he called and empowered for this task. Only after testing under difficult conditions did the relative trustworthiness of the servant become apparent. In Abraham's case, his unwavering faith accomplished the fulfillment of the covenant promises in terms of a great nation that would honor him through the centuries as "their father" ( John 8:39 ; Rom 4:16 ). This privilege, however, was not to be restricted to the Jews, but was also shared by adherents to the world religions of Christianity and Islam.
The prophecy whereby all human families would be blessed (or "bless themselves") came to fruition in the work of Jesus Christ, the Messiah of God, who was the long-promised descendant of Abraham ( Matt 1:1 ; Gal 3:16 ). His atoning death broke the power of sin over human beings and enabled them to be reconciled to God through penitence and faith. The saving work of Christ ushered in the new covenant prophesied by Jeremiah (31:31) and was given definitive shape in the Christian church, a body of believers committed to serve Jesus as king and lord through Acts of obedience and faith. This privileged group is blessed by the assurance of God's love and his saving power that sustain all who trust in him. But while being a recipient of blessing, the Christian church is commanded to fulfill covenant responsibilities ( Matt 28:14 ) in a manner unknown to the covenant people of Old Testament times. It is by this means, however, that the Abrahamic blessings come into effect when both Jewish and Gentile sinners find forgiveness and spiritual rebirth in Christ through the proclamation of the gospel.
The Christian faith thus stands in an unbroken chain of spirituality that has come down through the ages. The new covenant on which the Christian church is founded is based upon an individual's relationship with God in Christ, and not upon the response of a group such as a tribe to the Lord's commands. The atoning work of Christ on Calvary, achieved by a man as fully obedient to God's commands ( Php 2:8 ) as Abraham ever was, has released a flood of divine grace upon an undeserving world, and has brought the blessed fruit of the Spirit ( Gal 5:22-23 ) into the believer's life.
Paul stressed that the children of God by faith in Jesus were in fact members of Abraham's offspring, and thus heirs according to the promise ( Gal 3:26-29 ). Thus Christians can speak confidently of Abraham as "the father of the faithful, " and praise a merciful God because it was through his fidelity in remote ages that our eternal salvation has become an actuality. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and others are no longer shadowy images which, in an earlier age of biblical criticism, were often dismissed as legendary or even mythological. Instead, the participants in the Abrahamic covenant are seen as real persons with whom modern Christians are privileged to join in witness to God's power and his plan of salvation through Christ. While Christians can rejoice in the realization that the blessings of Abraham's covenant have become their very own, it is important for them to remember that, as Jesus taught, the true children of Abraham perform the deeds of Abraham ( John 8:39 ).
Dynamic though Abraham's covenant was, sheer physical descent from the revered patriarch did not of itself guarantee an individual's salvation, as John the Baptist pointed out ( Matt 3:9 ). Nor did it imply that there were no unbelievers in ancient Israel ( Ro 9:6 ). Only those members whose lives manifested the obedience and trust of the patriarch would participate in covenant blessings. The man who for Paul was the exemplar of faith ( Rom 4:16-22 ; Gal 3:6-12 ) was understood by James to demonstrate that justification by faith is proved in works that issue from such a faith ( Jas 2:20-24 ). The emphasis, however, is upon the genuine nature of the faith rather than such deeds as may result.
R. K. Harrison
See also Israel
Bibliography. G. Bush, Notes on Genesis; D. Kidner, Genesis; K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament; F. B. Meyer, Abraham: The Obedience of Faith; C. F. Pfeiffer, The Patriarchal Age; A. R. Millard and D. J. Wiseman, Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives.
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