Abraham is perhaps the most well-known figure from the Bible apart from Jesus of Nazareth. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all consider Abraham the patriarch of their faith, albeit in rather different ways. It is impossible to say whether Abraham was a historical figure: while many of the details provided about him in the book of Genesis fit a second millennium BCE context, they come nowhere near adding up to enough information to verify his existence from available evidence.
The book of Genesis identifies Abram—as he is named at birth—as the son of Terah, born in Ur, a city in the southern reaches of Mesopotamia (in what is now known as Iraq). At some point in Abram’s early adulthood (he is married, but his age is not given), Terah moves the whole family from Ur to Haran, in Anatolia (southeast Turkey). They remain there for some time, until Terah dies and Abram has a vision of God that compels him to migrate on to Canaan. There, his patron deity YHWH makes a covenant with Abram that he will have a landholding in this area for all time. Abram, now with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, and a caravan of household members, explores this new territory, which is part of the Levant (contemporary Israel/Palestine). Famine, however, requires them to flee south to Egypt to survive (Gen 12:10–13:1). After that involuntary migration, they migrate back north to the Levant, and settle in Hebron.
From this point forward, the dominant theme in the story of Abram is the continuation of his line, and whether that son will come from his elderly partner Sarai. Fearing herself incapable of producing a child, Sarai encourages a union between Abram and Hagar, her Egyptian maid. The result is Ishmael (meaning God hears)—son to Abraham, and the person identified as the line through which Islam will eventually emerge. Abram wants the covenant promises made to him by his patron deity YHWH to pass on to Ishmael, but he is told that it will not be so. Rather, he is promised a son with Sarai—a promise that is sealed by an ancient practice of having one’s named changed. From this point on (Gen 17), Abram will be Abraham (father [Hebrew av] of many [Hebrew hamon]) and Sarai will be Sarah (connoting rulership). Animosity grows between Sarah and Hagar, such that Abraham allows his wife to cast out Hagar and Ishmael twice during his lifetime. Isaac is selected to inherit the covenant, but his childhood is hardly without drama.
One of the most famous scenes from Genesis depicts Abraham coming within moments of sacrificing his son Isaac (Gen 22). YHWH instructs Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac up to Mt Moriah (later associated with Mt Zion in Jerusalem) and to offer him there as a sacrifice. Isaac helps his father in all the necessary steps—accumulating wood, setting the place, even mounting the wood and being bound. Just as Abraham prepares to plunge the knife into his son, a divine voice stops him, and purportedly supplies a ram to sacrifice as a substitute. Known in Judaism as the Akedah (Hebrew for binding), commentators have always debated whether this is a noble test of Abraham’s faith, a failure on his part to object to the whole idea, or an attempt to provide a rationale for the elimination of child sacrifice from ancient Israelite religion. No one is likely to ever win that debate, and this text will undoubtedly continue to be a source of much discussion. The incident is known to many Christian interpreters as the Sacrifice of Isaac—though nobody actually dies. The narrative also appears in the Qur’an (Sura 27).
With Isaac alive and now clearly favoured to inherit the covenant promise of land, Abraham arranges for him to find a wife from his family in Haran. The desire for marriage within the family is both common in the ancient world, but also a feature found among migrant communities. Thus, the account of Rebekah being identified by Abraham’s servant and brought to Canaan to marry Isaac reflects how integral the experience of migration is to Abraham’s own decisions (Gen 24).
Abraham outlives Sarah—whom he buried in a cave he purchased as his first proper landholding in Canaan (Gen 23)—ostensibly reaching the age of 175 (Gen 25). He is buried in the same cave (called Machpelah), a symbol that the promise YHWH made to provide him a landholding in Canaan was fulfilled.
Despite his towering presence over the narrative from Genesis 12–25, and his prominence in later history, Abraham rarely appears in the Hebrew Bible after this point. Only a few psalms (Pss 47, 105) and a few passages in the prophets (Isa 29, 41, 52, 63; Jer 33; Ezek 33; Mic 7) employ him in their rhetoric in a substantial way. Nonetheless, he does feature in some of the non-canonical literature from early Judaism (e.g., The Testament of Abraham) and make a few appearances in the New Testament (most notably in Romans 4 and Galatians). Of course, he also features in the Qur’an, where there are a number of stories about Ibrahim (as he is known by Muslims).
There is much debate whether Abraham is a paragon of faith to be imitated or an object lesson in poor family relations and moral failure. Those debates will continue so long as the stories about him are read. Indeed, one wonders whether that might have been the function of this narrative in the ancient world: to present the audience with a figure that challenged all who encountered him to reflect upon the nature of faithfulness to divine instruction and care for other humans.
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Abraham: The Story of a Life. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, England: Eerdmans, 2015.
Clements, Ronald. Abraham and David: Genesis 15 and its Meaning for Israelite Tradition. London: SCM Press, 1967.
Exum, J. Cheryl. ‘Whose Afraid of the “Endangered Ancestress”?’ Pages 115-33 in Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives. Edited by J. Cheryl Exum. London: T&T Clark, 2016, 2nd edn.
Hendel, Ronald. Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory and History in the Hebrew Bible. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Levenson, Jon D. The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.
Sherwood, Yvonne. ‘The Hagaramic and the Abrahamic, or Abraham the non-European.’ Pages 17-46 in Reading the Abrahamic Faiths. Edited by Emma Mason. London: Bloomsbury, 2015.