Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Abraham: The Father of the Israelites

Posted by foryourfaith on October 12, 2010


According to the Bible, God chose Abram (later to be called Abraham) to father the nation of Israel. “Now 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. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great.”

The fact that the 75 year-old Abram was willing to uproot himself and give up his home suggests a man accustomed to obeying god. However, Genesis simply revealed that Abram’s father was Terah, he had two brothers, and his wife’s name was Sarai. Originating in the land of Ur in Mesopotamia, the family migrated toward the west.

Genesis gave so little explanation for the choice of Abram that later generations were inspired to fill in the gaps. For example, the Book of Jubilees, a second-century BC Jewish text, greatly elaborated on Abram’s early years. At the age of 14, Abram already abhorred the idol-worship of his father.

For decades he urged his family to renounce this practice. When he was 60 years old, he set fire to the house of idols. As his kin scrambled to save their gods from destruction, Abram’s brother Haran was burned in the flames. The Book of Jubilees shows that god called Abram because he had crusaded against idolatry.

According to Genesis, Abram took his family to the city of Shechem, in the land of Canaan. God promised, “To your descendants I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7). However, Abram found that the land was already inhabited, and even more ominously, famine struck. Abram had to emigrate in order to survive. He journeyed to Egypt.

As he traveled, Abram had a strange thought. He feared that his wife Sarai was so beautiful that the Egyptians would kill him to possess her. Abram asked Sarai, “say that you are my sister that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.” When the Egyptians saw Sarai they were struck by her beauty, and Pharaoh desired her for his harem. Abram did not protest when Sarai was taken into Pharaoh’s household. Posing as Sarai’s brother, Abram accepted gifts from the king.

But by surrendering Sarai to another, Abram endangered his relationship with the Lord. Rather than punishing Abram, Yahweh brought plagues upon Pharaoh and his house. Discovering the truth, Pharaoh returned Sarai to her husband, and sent them both away.

Later interpreters grappled with the moral dilemma the story presented. How could Abram, God’s chosen, compromise his own wife? The Book of Jubilees omitted Abram’s role and stated that Pharaoh tore Sarai away from Abram. Other interpreters laid great blame on Abram. Moses Nahmanides, a 13th-century Jewish scholar, suggested that Israel’s later enslavement in Egypt was punishment for Abram’s sin. However, the story in Genesis implied that god preserved and defended his promises even in the face of betrayal of Abram.

Once back in Canaan, Abram and his nephew Lot, who was traveling with him, “had flocks and herds and tents,” and “the land could not support both of them dwelling together” (Genesis 13:5-6).

Abram offered Lot his choice of the land. “Is not the whole land before you?” he asked: “Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left.” Lot chose to live near Sodom, in the plains of the Jordan valley. His choice seemed sound, for the land was fertile, “like the garden of the Lord.”

After Lot’s departure, God reaffirmed his promise to Abram. “All the land which you see” would belong to his descendants, who were destined to be as numerous “as the dust of the earth” (Genesis 3:15-16).

Soon a war beset the region around the Jordan. The hostilities were of no concern to Abram, until he discovered that his nephew Lot had been taken prisoner. Despite their decision to part company, the ties of the blood were strong. Abram organized an army of 318 men and, with them, defeated the enemy and recovered the prisoners.

On his return from battle, Abram met King Melchizedek of Salem, a “priest of God Most High.” Abram donated a tenth part of the booty to the priest-king.

Who was Melchizedek, and where was Salem? How did Melchizedek become a priest of God; and why did Abram, God’s chosen, give a title to this priest-king? The silence of Genesis left a mystery.

Psalm 76:2 identified Salem with Zion and Jerusalem. Psalm 110:4 linked the kings of Israel t0 Melchizedek, calling them priests “after the order of Melchizedek.” It has been suggested that the Messiah in Psalm 110 was linked to Melchizedek. In the New Testament, the letter to the Hebrews speaks of Melchizedek as “resembling the Son of God” because he is “without father or mother or genealogy and has neither beginning of days nor end of life.” Thus Melchizedek, it was argued, provided a pattern for the priesthood of Jesus as Messiah.

Having survived the ordeal of war, Abram received another pledge from god. “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram despaired of ever having children. He and Sarai were aging. God said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars . . . So shall your descendants be.”

As the sun set, Abram fell asleep, “and dread and great darkness fell upon him.” God told him about the future enslavement of his descendants and their eventual redemption. “Know of a surety that your descendants will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs, and will be slaves there and they will be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation which they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” Why must Abram’s people wait so long to inherit the Promised Land? God explained that it would be unjust to punish the Canaanites until their own actions warranted dispossession.

Ten years had passed since God’s original call to Abram. On numerous occasions Yahweh had promised that Abram’s considerable progeny would inherit the land of Canaan. Yet the patriarch and his wife remained childless.

While Abram seemed to have been satisfied with god’s reassurances, Sarai was not. Following a common custom of the time, she gave Hagar, her Egyptian maid, to Abram, saying, “go in to my maid; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” Abram complied, and took Hagar as a concubine.

When Hagar conceived, however, she began to treat Sarai with contempt. The mistress lashed out with bitterness. “And Sarai said to Abram, ‘May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my maid to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!’” Abram gave Sarai permission to discipline Hagar. “Then Sarai dealt harshly with her and she fled from her.”

God had compassion on the mistreated servant. He sent an angel to her in the wilderness, advising her to return. The angel told Hagar that she was destined to produce many descendants through this son, who was to be called Ishmael. However, the angel stated, Ishmael would “be a wild ass of a man; his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him” (Genesis 16:12). Hagar returned to Abram, and gave birth to her child.

Thirteen years passed before God appeared to the patriarch with more promises for the future. God wished to renew his covenant with Abram, and he renamed him Abraham, which means “father of a multitude of nations.” God also gave Sarai the name Sarah. “I will make you exceedingly fruitful,” said God to Abram, “and I will make nations of you.”

Circumcision was part of God’s renewed covenant with the patriarch. “Every male among you shall be circumcised . . . it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you.” Failure to fulfill the obligation brought severe sanctions, “any uncircumcised male . . . shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

Thus, Abraham, Ishmael, and every male in Abraham’s household were circumcised “that very day.” The people of ancient Israel were aware that many nations around them also practiced circumcision, but the origin of the rite is unknown. For the Israelites, however, circumcision was the sign of God’s covenant with them.

God also informed Abraham that Sarah would have a son of her own. Abraham could only laugh, “Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” He asked God to favor Ishmael, his first-born. But God repeated the promise. He said the son would be called Isaac, and asserted that Isaac, not Ishmael, would be the heir to Abraham’s covenant with God.

As Abraham sat before his tent, he saw three men approaching. Assuming that they were travelers, he hastened to fulfill the duty of hospitality to the strangers. He bowed in greeting. “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet,” said Abraham, “and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread . . . and after that you may pass on.” He was unaware that the strangers were angelic messengers.

With Sarah’s help, Abraham prepared a sumptuous meal for the guests. Sitting down to eat, the angels informed Abraham that Sarah would give birth to a son the following spring. Listening at the tent door Sarah laughed, “after I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” (Genesis 18:12). “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” was God’s response.

The miracle that god had promised, the birth of a son to Abraham and Sarah, finally occurred. In keeping with the divine covenant, Abraham circumcised his son at the age of eight days. But the two sons in Abraham’s family, Ishmael, son of Hagar, the slave, and Isaac, son of Sarah, brought tension to the household.

Sarah insisted that Abraham dispose of “this slave woman with her son.” But Abraham refused to cast out his own son. However, god himself intervened, explaining that Abraham’s great mission would be continued through the progeny of Isaac. He reassured the patriarch, “I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.”

God did indeed sustain Ishmael. The next morning Abraham sent Hagar and her son away with a supply of food and water. The water gave out in the middle of the wilderness, and “the child lifted up his voice and wept.” But God “opened her eyes,” enabling Hagar to see a well that saved both mother and son from death. From then on, “God was with the lad and he grew up.”


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