Abraham (Hebrew אברהם Abhrāhām, Avraham "Father/Leader of many") is the name given in the Book of Genesis to the ancestor of the Jews. Islam also regards him (under the name Ibrahim) as the ancestor of the Arabs, through Ishmael. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are sometimes referred to as the "Abrahamic religions" in reference to their supposed common descent from Abraham.
There is no known account of his life independent of Genesis, so it is not possible to know if he was a historical figure. If he was, he probably lived between 2000 BC and 1500 BC.
His original name was Abram (Hebrew אברם Abhrām, Avram "High/Exalted father/leader"); he was the foremost of the Biblical patriarchs. Later in life he went by the name Abraham (Ibrahim), (Arabic ابرَاهِيم, Hebrew אברהם) which means "father of many" (see Genesis 17).
Abraham in Genesis
The account of his life is found in the Book of Genesis, beginning in Chapter 11, at the close of a genealogy of the sons of Shem (which includes among its members Eber, the eponym of the Hebrews).
His father Terah came from Ur of the Chaldees, identified by most historians with the ancient city in southern Mesopotamia which was under the rule of the Chaldeans — although some believe that "Ur" should be identified with Urfa in northern Mesopotamia inkeeping with the local tradition that Abraham was born in Urfa. They also say "Chaldees" refers to a group of gods called Khaldis while the Urartuan language is also known as Chaldaean thanks to Josephus. Abram migrated to Haran, apparently the classical Carrhae, on a branch of the Habor. Thence, after a short stay, he, his wife Sarai, Lot (the son of Abram's brother Haran), and all their followers, departed for Canaan. There are two possible Ur cities not far from Haran; Ura and Urfa, a northern Ur also being mentioned in tablets at Ugarit, Nuzi, and Ebla. These possibly refer to Ur, URA, and Urau (See BAR January 2000, page 16). Moreover, the names of Abram's for fathers Peleg, Serug, Nahor and Terah, all appear as names of cities in the region of Haran (Harper's Bible Dictionary, page 373). Yahweh called Abram to go to "the land I will show you", and promised to bless him and make him (though hitherto childless) a great nation. Trusting this promise, Abram journeyed down to Shechem, and at the sacred tree (compare Gen. 25:4, Joshua 24:26, Judges 9:6) received a new promise that the land would be given unto his seed (descendants). Having built an altar to commemorate the theophany, he removed to a spot between Bethel and Ai, where he built another altar and called upon (i.e. invoked) the name of Yahweh (Gen. 12:1-9).
Here he dwelt for some time, until strife arose between his herdsmen and those of Lot. Abram thereupon proposed to Lot that they should separate, and allowed his nephew the first choice. Lot preferred the fertile land lying east of the Jordan River, whilst Abram, after receiving another promise from Yahweh, moved down to the oaks of Mamre in Hebron and built an altar.
In the subsequent history of Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abram appears prominently in a passage where he intercedes with Yahweh on behalf of Sodom, and is promised that if ten righteous men can be found therein the city shall be preserved (18:16-33).
Driven by a famine to take refuge in Egypt (26:11, 41:57, 42:1), Abram feared lest his wife's beauty should arouse the evil designs of the Egyptians and thus endanger his own safety, and alleged that Sarai was his sister. This did not save her from the Pharaoh, who took her into the royal harem and enriched Abram with herds and servants. But when Yahweh "plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues" suspicion was aroused, and the Pharaoh rebuked the patriarch for his deceit and sent him away under an escort (12:10-13:1).
There is a parallel text describing a similar event at Gerar with the Philistine king Abimelech.
As Sarai was infertile, God's promise that Abraham's seed would inherit the land seemed incapable of fulfilment. His sole heir was his servant, who was over his household, a certain Eliezer of Damascus (15:2). Abraham is now promised as heir one of his own flesh. The passage recording the ratification of the promise is remarkably solemn (see Genesis 15).
Sarai, in accordance with custom, gave to Abram her Egyptian handmaid Hagar, who, when she found she was with child, presumed upon her position to the extent that Sarai, unable to endure the reproach of barrenness (cf. the story of Hannah, 1 Samuel 1:6), dealt harshly with her and forced her to flee (16:1-14). Hagar is promised that her descendants will be too numerous to count, and she returns. Her son Ishmael thus was Abram's firstborn (and Islamic doctrine holds that he was the rightful heir). Hagar and Ishmael were eventually driven permanently away from Abram by Sarah (chapter 21).
The name Abraham was given to Abram (and the name Sarah to Sarai) at the same time as the covenant of circumcision (chapter 17), which is practiced in Judaism to this day. At this time Abraham was promised not only many descendants, but descendants through Sarah specifically, as well as the land where he was living, which was to belong to his descendants. The covenant was to be fulfilled through Isaac, though God promised that Ishmael would become a great nation as well. The covenant of circumcision (unlike the earlier promise) was two-sided and conditional: if Abraham and his descendants fulfilled their part of the covenant, Yahweh would be their God and give them the land.
The promise of a son to Sarah made Abraham "laugh," which became the name of the son of promise, Isaac. Sarah herself "laughs" at the idea, when Yahweh appears to Abraham at Mamre (18:1-15) and, when the child is born, cries "God hath made me laugh; every one that heareth will laugh at me" (21:6).
In Genesis 18, Abraham pleads with God not to destroy Sodom, and God agrees that he would not destroy the city if there were 50 righteous people in it, or 45, or 30, 20, even 10 righteous people. (Abraham's nephew Lot had been living in Sodom.)
Some time after the birth of Isaac, Abraham was commanded by God to offer his son up as a sacrifice in the land of Moriah. Proceeding to obey, he was prevented by an angel as he was about to sacrifice his son, and slew a ram which he found on the spot. As a reward for his obedience he received another promise of a numerous seed and abundant prosperity (22). Thence he returned to Beersheba. The near sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most challenging, and perhaps ethically troublesome, parts of the Bible.
The primary interest of the narrative now turns to Isaac. To his "only son" (22:2, 12) Abraham gave all he had, and dismissed the sons of his concubines to the lands outside Palestine; they were thus regarded as less intimately related to Isaac and his descendants (25:1-6). See also: Midianites, Sheba.
Sarah died at an old age, and was buried in the cave of Machpelah near Hebron, which Abraham had purchased, along with the adjoining field, from Ephron the Hittite (Genesis 23). Here Abraham himself was buried. Centuries later the tomb became a place of pilgrimage and the traditional site was later marked by an Islamic mosque.
Abraham in Judaism
Abraham is considered the father of the Jewish nation, as their first Patriarch, and having a son (Isaac), who in turn gave birth to Jacob, and from there the Twelve Tribes. To father the nation, God "tested" Abraham with ten tests, the greatest of which being the sacrifice of his son Isaac. God promised the land of Israel to his children, and that is the first claim of the Jews to Israel.
Judaism ascribes a special trait to each Patriarch. Abraham's was kindness. Because of this, Judaism considers kindness to be an inherent Jewish trait.
Jewish tradition teaches the origins of Abraham's monotheism. His father Terah owned a store that sold idols. Abraham (then Abram), at the age of three, started to question their authenticity. This culminating in Abraham destroying some idols.
Abraham was then brought to the king, and sentenced to death, along with his brother Haran, unless they recanted their position. Abraham did not, and was thrown into a fire. When Abraham exited unscathed, Haran also would not recant, and was thrown into the fire. Haran, who did not truly believe, died in the fire. This is hinted to in Genesis 11:28.
Abraham then went to Haran (the city, different name then his brother) with his father and brother. His father died there. God spoke to Abraham for the first time, and told him of great things He would give him if he would leave Haran. Abraham did. He was seventy-five during this affair.
Abraham started a school for teaching his beliefs in God, and some say he wrote the Sefer Yetzirah.
Jews today mention Abraham in their prayers, when praying to "the God of Abraham". And, because of Genesis 15:1, ask that God shield them, like he promised to shield Abraham. Also, the epitome of his tests, the binding of Isaac on the altar, is mentioned many times in the Jewish liturgy.
Abraham in Christianity
Abraham stands out prominently as the recipient of the promises (Gen. 12:2-7, 13:14-17, 15, 17, 18:17-19, 22:17-18, 24:7). In the New Testament Abraham is mentioned prominently as a man of faith (see e.g., Hebrews 11), and the apostle Paul uses him as an example of salvation by faith (in e.g. Galatians 3).
The Orthodox view in Christianity is that the promises made to Abraham are still valid to the Jewish nation, though some remain as yet unfulfilled.
The Roman Catholic Church calls Abraham "our father in Faith," in the Eucharistic prayer called Roman Canon, recited during Mass.
Abraham in Islam
Abraham - called Ibrahim in Islam - is very important to Islam, both in his own right and as the father of Ismail (Ishmael), his firstborn son.
Abraham (Ibrahim) is considered one of the first and most important prophets of Islam, and is commonly termed Khalil Ullah, Friend of God. (Islam regards most of the Old Testament "patriarchs" as prophets of God, and hence as Muslims.) While most Muslims believe that Adam, the first man, was the first Muslim (submitter to God), they universally agree that Abraham was a prophet of God (Allah is simply Arabic for God).
According to the Quran, Abraham reached the conclusion that anything subject to disappearance could not be worthy of worship, and thus became a monotheist (Quran 6:76-83.) As in Jewish tradition, Abraham's father (named Azar in Islam) was an idol-maker, and Abraham broke his idols, calling on his community to worship God instead. They then cast him into a fire, which miraculously failed to burn him (Quran 37:83-98.) The well-known but wholly non-canonical Qisas al-Anbiya (Ibn Kathir) records considerably more detail about his life, which are commonly referred to in Islamic accounts of his life.
Traditionally, Muslims believe that it was Ishmael rather than Isaac whom Abraham was told to sacrifice. In support of this, Muslims note that the text of Genesis as it stands, despite specifying Isaac, appears to state that Abraham was told to sacrifice his only son ("Take now thy son, thine only son, whom thou lovest, even Isaac," Jewish Publication Society (http://www.breslov.com/bible/) translation, Genesis/Bereshit 22:2) to God. Since Isaac was Abraham's second son, there was no time at which he would have been Abraham's only son, so they take this to imply that the original text must have named Ishmael rather than Isaac as the intended sacrifice. The Qur'an itself does not specify which son he nearly sacrificed (Quran 37:99-111).
The entire episode of the sacrifice is regarded as a trial that Abraham had to face from God. It is celebrated by Muslims on the day of Eid ul-Adha. Muslims also believe that Abraham, along with his son Ishmael, rebuilt the Kaaba in Mecca (Quran 2.125.)
He is one of the most important prophets in Islam, and Muslims have a specific dua that (in some traditions) they recite daily which asks God to bless both Abraham and Muhammad. According to Islamic tradition, he is buried in Hebron. In the Masjid al Haram in Mecca, there is an area known as the "station of Ibrahim" (Maqam Ibrahim مقام), which supposedly bears an impression of his footprints.
Abraham and his descendants
Biblical narratives represent Abraham as an idealized sheikh (with one important exception, Gen. 14, see below). As the father of Isaac and Ishmael, he is ultimately the common ancestor of the Israelites and their nomadic fierce neighbours. As the father of Midian, Sheba and other Arabian tribes (25:1-4), it seems that some degree of kinship was felt by the Hebrews with the dwellers of the more distant south, and it is characteristic of the genealogies that the mothers (Sarah, Hagar and Keturah) are in the descending scale as regards purity of blood.
As stated above, Abraham came from Ur in Babylonia and Haran and thence to Canaan. Late tradition supposed that the migration was to escape Babylonian idolatry (Judith 5, Jubilees 12; cf. Joshua 24:2), and knew of Abraham's miraculous escape from death (an obscure reference to some act of deliverance in Isaiah 29:22). The route along the banks of the Euphrates from south to north was so frequently taken by migrating tribes that the tradition has nothing improbable in itself, but the prominence given in the older narratives to the view that Haran was the home gives this the preference. It was thence that Jacob, the father of the tribes of Israel, came and the route to Shechem and Bethel is precisely the same in both. A twofold migration is doubtful, and, from what is known of the situation in Palestine in the 15th century BC, is extremely improbable.
Further, there is yet another parallel in the story of the conquest by Joshua, partly implied and partly actually detailed (cf. also Joshua 8:9 with Gen. 12:8, 13:3), whence it would appear that too much importance must not be laid upon any ethnological interpretation which fails to account for the three versions. That similar traditional elements have influenced them is not unlikely; but to recover the true historical foundation is difficult. The invasion or immigration of certain tribes from the east of the Jordan; the presence of Aramean blood among the Israelites; the origin of the sanctity of venerable sites — these and other considerations may readily be found to account for the traditions.
Noteworthy coincidences in the lives of Abraham and Isaac, noticed above, point to the fluctuating state of traditions in the oral stage, or suggest that Abraham's life has been built up by borrowing from the common stock of popular lore. More original is the parting of Lot and Abraham at Bethel. The district was the scene of contests between Moab and the Hebrews (cf. perhaps Judges 3), and if this explains part of the story, the physical configuration of the Dead Sea may have led to the legend of the destruction of inhospitable and vicious cities.
Different writers have regarded the life of Abraham differently. He has been viewed as a chieftain of the Amorites, as the head of a great Semitic migration from Mesopotamia; or, since Ur and Haran were seats of Moon-worship, he has been identified with a moon-god. From the character of the literary evidence and the locale of the stories it has been held that Abraham was originally associated with Hebron. The double name Abram/Abraham has even suggested that two personages have been combined in the Biblical narrative; although this does not explain the change from Sarai to Sarah. But it is important to remember that the narratives are not contemporary, and that the interesting discovery of the name Abi-ramu (Abram) on Babylonian contracts of about 2000 BC does not prove the Abram of the Old Testament to be an historical person, even as the fact that there were "Amorites" in Babylonia at the same period does not make it certain that the patriarch was one of their number. One remarkable chapter associates Abraham with kings of Elam and the east (Genesis 14). No longer a peaceful sheikh but a warrior with a small army of 318 followers, he overthrows a combination of powerful monarchs who have ravaged the land. The genuineness of the narrative has been strenuously maintained, although upon insufficient grounds.
On the assumption that a recollection of some invasion in remote days may have been current, considerable interest is attached to the names. Of these, Amraphel, king of Shinar (i.e. Babylonia, Genesis 10:10), has been in the past identified with Hammurabi, one of the greatest of the Babylonian kings (c. 2000 B.C.), and since he claims to have ruled as far west as the Mediterranean Sea, the equation has found considerable favour. Apart from chronological difficulties, the identification of the king and his country is far from certain, and at the most can only be regarded as possible. Arioch, king of Ellasar, has been connected with Eriaku of Larsa — the reading has been questioned — a contemporary with Hammurabi. Chedorlaomer, king of Elam, bears what is doubtless a genuine Elamite name. Finally, the name of Tid'al, king of Goiim, may be identical with a certain Tudhulu the son of Gazza, a warrior, but apparently not a king, who is mentioned in a Babylonian inscription, and Goiim may stand for Gutim, the Guti being a people who lived to the east of Kurdistan. Nevertheless, there is as yet no monumental evidence in favour of the genuineness of the story, and at the most it can only be said that the author (of whatever date) has derived his names from a trustworthy source, and in representing an invasion of Palestine by Babylonian overlords has given expression to a possible situation. The improbabilities and internal difficulties of the narrative remain untouched, only the bare outlines may very well be historical. If, as most critics agree, it is a historical romance (cf., e.g., the book of Judith), it is possible that a writer, preferably one who lived in the post-exilic age and was acquainted with Babylonian history, desired to enhance the greatness of Abraham by exhibiting his military success against the monarchs of the Tigris and Euphrates, the high esteem he enjoyed in Palestine and his lofty character as displayed in his interview with Melchizedek.