The patriarch Abraham (c. 1996 BC-1821 BC) started with humble beginnings as a son of Ur. Abraham is now regarded as one of the most influential people in all of history. The world's three largest monotheistic religions—in fact possibly monotheism itself—found their beginnings with him. Over 3 billion people in the modern world cite Abraham as the "father" of their religion. Abraham was promised by his God descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky, but today two branches of his family, the Jews and the Muslims, continue to battle for his birthright.
Birth of a Patriarch
In the Torah, Abraham's story is found in Lekh Lekha. In the Bible, it is the same, in Genesis, but is also commented on in the New Testament. In the Koran, Abraham can be found mentioned throughout, revered as one of the great prophets of the Muslim faith. In all three holy books, and in all three faiths, Abraham is revered as a father and a founder. The Bible calls him "our spiritual faith." Archaeology knows him as literally impossible to trace. History calls him the father of monotheism and originator of a great battle—spanning centuries—for pride and a little place: the land of Israel.
Abraham was born Abram, son of Terah, at the beginning of the second millennium BC in Ur, the capital of Mesopotamia at the height of its splendor as a highly developed ancient world. According to Jewish tradition, he was the son of an idol maker and smashed all of his fathers idols—except one—in a story that foreshadows his devotion to one God. The Koran tells of a time when Abram confronts his father about his idol worship and is condemned to burn in a furnace by King Nimrod of Babylon, but God protected him. His family left Ur—in modern day Iraq—to travel northwest along the trade route and the Euphrates River to the city of Haran. Abram settled down in Haran—in modern day Israel—with his family. He married Sarai and entered into a lifelong partnership with her. At the time, Haran—as well as all the neighboring cities and countries—was a land devoted to polytheism.
Abram was in Haran at age 75 when he got the call from God to leave his home and family behind and follow God into a strange land that He would give him. Time quoted Thomas Cahill, author of The Gifts of the Jews, calling the move "a complete departure from everything that has gone before in the evolution of culture and sensibility." Abram took his wife, his nephew, Lot, and his possessions and departed. Abram moved south into the land of Canaan, a land inhabited by a warrior people called the Canaanites. He settled temporarily in Shechem and Beth-el. God told Abraham his descendants would inherit the Canaanite land.
A famine in the land forced Abram and his people to move on to Egypt. Fearful that Pharoah would kill Abram for his beautiful wife, Abram asked Sarai to pretend she was his sister instead. Pharoah noted Sarai and took her as a concubine. For this, God struck the Pharoah with a plague and revealed Sarai's true identity. Angry with Abram, Pharoah returned Sarai and asked them to leave Egypt. Abram left with carts of wealth.
Renewal of Abraham's Calling
Abram returned to Canaan with Lot and Sarai, but Lot and Abram had a dispute over grazing land for their herds. Breaking with tradition, Abram allowed Lot—the younger of the two—to chose the land he would take. Lot chose the fertile plain to the east, and Abram took the hills to the west. Lot's land included the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. After Abram was again settled, God came to Abram and renewed his promise; that Abram would inherit for his descendants all the land he could see in every direction.
Lot moved to Sodom and was captured when local tribes attacked the city. Abram—who had grown wealthy and distinguished—armed his men and pursued Lot's kidnappers, regaining Lot and his possessions. Again God affirmed his promises to Abram, Abram now being well advanced in years and without offspring. God reaffirmed that He would give the land from the Nile to the Euphrates to Abram's descendants, but only after they had spent 400 years as slaves.
The First Son
With God having more than once affirmed his promise of numerous progeny to Abram, Sarai made a suggestion. In the ancient world, it was a custom to offer a substitute to bear a child to ensure the continuation of the family. Sarai offered her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar, to Abram to bear them a child. Abram consented, and at the age of 86 Hagar bore him a son, Ishmael.
The Second Son
Thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael, God once again appeared to Abram and renewed His covenant with Abram through the sign of circumcision and even expanded the promises: if Abram would "walk before [the LORD] and be upright" then God would make Abram the "father of a multitude of nations." God changed Abram's name to Abraham, which means "the father of many nations," and He changed Sarai's name to Sarah, meaning "princess." God also revealed that the promises would not come to Abraham through Ishmael, but through another son that would be born to Sarah in a years' time. Abraham laughed at this seemingly absurd promise, because Abraham was 99 at the time and Sarah was 89. When Abraham laughed, God said the boy's name would be Isaac, which means "he laughs."
God came again to speak to Abraham, in the guise of a traveler with companions (who were two angels). They were on their way to Sodom to destroy the city for its wickedness. Abraham boldly bargained with God on behalf of Lot, and because of Abraham's favor, God relented: if there were just ten righteous people in Sodom, God would not destroy it. During God's and the angels' visit, Abraham served them Bedouin hospitality: a goat, water, and other food. Later, God could not find even ten righteous in Sodom, but spared Lot's family by warning them to leave before he destroyed the city. Lot's wife was turned to a pillar of salt when she turned to view Sodom as she fled.
A year later, Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Sarah grew increasingly jealous of Hagar and Ishmael, and Abraham relented to allow Sarah to send them out into the wilderness. God saved Hagar and Ishmael and promised Ishmael would also father a great nation through 12 sons, assumed by tradition to be the 12 Arab tribes. According to Christian and Jewish scripture, God stipulated, though, that the covenant would flow through Isaac's line. In Talmudic tradition, Ishmael was later down-played, cast as a bully to younger brother Isaac. According to the Koran, Hagar and Ishmael made a journey to Mecca where they build a home and Abraham often visited them.
According to Judaism and Christianity, Isaac is the son whom the offering story is about. According to Islamic interpretation, Ishmael is the son in the story. Either way, Abraham was asked in a test of faith by God to take one of his sons onto Mount Moriah and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. At the time, children were often sacrificed as burnt offerings to a variety of deities. Abraham submitted, despite the fact that he "loved" his son. He took the son up on the mountain and prepared to sacrifice him. At the last moment, God told him to stay his hand and a ram appeared in the bushes. Abraham and his son slayed the ram as an offering, instead. God reiterated His promises to Abraham again, at this point, and made the covenant binding. Because Abraham had faith in the One God, God showed Himself different from other gods who desired human sacrifice and started His history with a people: the Jews or the Muslims. Christianity also lays claim to this story as the fore-shadowing of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Death of a Patriarch
After Sarah died, two things happened. The Koran tells the story of Abraham and Ishmael making a journey to retrieve the Kaaba—Islam's great shrine—from the sands. Also, Abraham sent a servant to find a suitable wife for Isaac among Abraham's relatives. The servant returned with Rebekah and Rebekah married Isaac and had Esau and Jacob. The Jewish covenant would pass down through Jacob, who would have twelve sons who would become the twelve tribes of Israel. Likewise, Jacob's sons would include Joseph and Judah, and the birthright would continue through Joseph and the scepter through Judah, which is important for the establishing of Jesus Christ in the line of the covenant.
Abraham married Keturah and had six more sons. Abraham died at 175 years old and was buried in a cave in Hebron with Sarah, before he could inherit the land of Canaan. Both Isaac and Ishmael attended the funeral.
His Descendants Today
The five repetitions of daily Muslim prayer begin and end with reference to Abraham. Several rituals during the hajj—the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca—throw back to Abraham's life. The Jews feature the story of Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac during their New Year celebrations. Christian children around the world sing "Father Abraham had many sons… . And I am one of them and so are you." Pope John Paul II spent a lifetime dreaming of walking the steps of Abraham's journey and has a special place in his heart for the Biblical Abraham.
There has been a trend in the 1990s and 2000s to use Abraham as a figure and tool for reconciliation. Interfaith activists have scheduled Abraham lectures, Abraham speeches, and Abraham "salons" worldwide. Bruce Feiler's Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths was published to a welcome reception. David Van Biema in Time notes, "It is a staple premise of the interfaith movement, which has been picking at the problem since the late 1800s, that if Muslims, Christians, and Jews are ever to respect and understand one another, a key road leads through Abraham." But Biema also says, "He is like a father who has left a bitterly disputed will" and points out that Abraham's story has at its core a theme of exclusivity.
The Israeli settler movement is largely fueled by the concept that Abraham's covenant with God grants the Jewish people the Holy Land. Meanwhile, Christians misused passages on Abraham written by Paul in the New Testament to encourage anti-Semitism and possibly the Crusades. There are also discrepancies about which of his sons did what. The Muslims and Jews have two totally different stories on which son was exalted and inherited the birthright. The Koran also claims that Abraham was the first Muslim, not a Jewish prophet. Biema says, "His story constitutes a kind of multifaith scandal, a case study for monotheism's darker side." Tad Szulc says in National Geographic, "The important thing, we are told, is to assess the meaning and legacy of the ideas Abraham came to embody. He is most famously thought of as the father of monotheism… . The stories do, however, describe his hospitality and peaceableness and, most important, his faith and obedience to God."
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