In this post we explore the sometimes misunderstood origins of Abraham and how trust was the key to unlocking a relationship with God.
Abraham is considered the father of our faith. It was his life and ideas that shaped three of the five major world religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. But what about his life was so inspiring? Today we will look at stories surrounding his life, the times in which he lived, and his relationship with God.
The Legendary Origins Of Abraham
Since the Bible does very little to fill in the early life of Abraham, stories and legends sprung up to fill in the literary gaps. These were somewhat codified and were finally recorded by the Sages of the Talmud in various Midrashim. And while it is only legend, it is interesting enough to see how later generations made sense of Abraham’s later contribution to our faith. Here is a condensed version of the stories of his early life:
(large portions of this synopsis was inspired by Chabad.org)
<a”>Terah, Abraham’s father, was the chief minister of the King Nimrod of Babylon. Terah was an idol worshipper. And at the birth of Abraham, Nimrod’s astrologers told him that Terah’s newly-born son would endanger his rule. So Nimrod ordered Terah to bring Abraham to be put to death. Terah, however, sent the baby of a slave who had been born on the same day and the baby was murdered.
Abraham, his mother, and a nurse, hid and lived in a cave for ten years. At an early age, Abraham knew that it was silly to worship idols. He realized that there was one God, who was Creator of all, sees and knows everything, and is the High King of the Universe. Abraham’s faith increased with his age.
At the age of ten, Abraham left the cave and went to live with Noah and Shem, who taught him all they knew about the history of the world and God. When Abraham was 48 years old and still with Noah, they heard about the Tower of Babel, and the division of tongues. Abraham determined that it was time to go and preach the truth about God, and denounce the worthlessness of idols. At the age of fifty Abraham returned to his father’s house in Babylon.
Abraham’s preaching ignited Nimrod’s anger. Both Abraham and his father were drug before the king. At once Nimrod’s astrologers recognized Abraham as the baby about which they had warned the king. Nimrod immediately ordered Abraham be thrown into a burning furnace. Abraham was miraculously sparred from the flam and Nimrod was greatly afraid of Abraham. He gave him many precious gifts and sent him away.
But two years later, Nimrod had a dream and again his astrologers interpreted it that Abraham put his rule in danger. Nimrod decided to try again to kill him, and tried to capture him. Eliezer learned of Nimrod’s treachery and warned Abraham. Abraham, with all that he had, fled to Noah. About a month later, his father Terah came to visit and Abraham persuaded him to give up his idols, including his high position at Nimrod’s court. They both decided to go to the land of Canaan, where they would be free to worship God, free of Nimrod.
Would the Real Abraham Please Stand Up:
While the legendary background of Abraham is appealing, it does little to help us understand the real Abraham. The fact of the matter is, Abraham probably did not have such auspicious origins. Instead, with the help of modern scholarship, we get a different, much more ordinary, view of his life.
The Dating of Abraham’s Life:
“Now the length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt was 430 years. At the end of the 430 years, to the very day, all the Lord’s divisions left Egypt.”
So this is a simple matter of math. The 430 years would start when Jacob entered Egypt at the age of 130 (Genesis 47:9). This would mean that Jacob was born in 2006 B.C., Isaac in 2066, and Abraham in 2166.
This means that he would be placed in the Early Bronze Age. From here we can look at history and archaeology to get a better look at his life and who he might have been.
Abraham In Real Life:
(portions of this section were inspired by ABR)
The Bible suggests that Abraham was an exceedingly wealthy man. He owned both donkeys and camels, slaves and servants, and gold and silver. Domesticated camels were rare in the Bronze Age, and had distinct economic advantages because of it. Based on the descriptions of the Abraham’s wealth, some scholars have surmised that he may have been a traveling merchant.
It was William F. Albright who first suggested the idea. He noticed a Hebrew word used in Genesis to describe the Patriarchs’ economic activity: “trade.” In Genesis the Hebrew consonantal stem SḤR that we translate as 23:16 (merchant); 34:10,21 (trade); 37:28 (sold); 42:34 (trade) – is best translated as “to trade (in), trader,” etc. He then noticed the connection between this word and the Old-Assyrian word which clearly means “to trade, barter,” and “goods for barter.” He thus concluded that Abraham was a merchant of some kind.
Later scholars have ventured to put the Patriarchs with a class wealthy merchants from the early second millennium BC who traveled regularly between Mesopotamia and the Levant: the tamkârum. Interestingly, such merchants functioned in a variety of roles: as governmental officials, as money lenders, and even commodity traders. Their structure of mercantile activities was based on family groups. It is clear from current research that Abraham was most likely a tamkârum from Ur of the Chaldees. Like many from Ur, Abraham embarked on a career in Canaan. But unlike many before him, Abraham succeeded in laying the foundation for his descendants’ to settle there.
But in order to do this, Abraham needed to move from a purely nomadic pastoralist/merchant to a more sedintary life. He accomplished this in Genesis 23, when he purchases a burial plot from Ephron the Hittite in order to bury Sarah.
“Abraham agreed to Ephron’s terms and weighed out for him the price he had named in the hearing of the Hittites: four hundred shekels of silver, according to the weight current among the merchants.”
This was not an uncommon practice for the merchant class. The Code of Hammurabi clearly indicates that tamkârum often purchased land and farmed it for profit. Land ownership, also, did not preclude him from maintaining an essentially nomadic existence. Many pastoral nomads have fields that their servants or other family members cultivate and they then use and sell the produce of the land while on their nomadic wanderings.
So what can we say about Abraham’s accomplishment. It wasn’t that God called him to do something unique or even unheard of. Other people were migrating to Palestine as merchants and pastoralists. But it was that he trusted God when God instructed him to make the move.
“The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.’ … So Abram went, as the Lord had told him.”
It wasn’t that God called him to live an austere life. On the contrary, from all that we can surmise from his life, he was a prosperous business man. He was a merchant who traded in livestock and other commodities. But what he did have, he was ethical and generous.
“Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram … Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”
Genesis 14:18-19a, 21b
And it was not that he was given wisdom beyond the ages or extreme purity, but he tried to trust God even when God did not make sense.
“Then God said, ‘Take your son , your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.’ … ‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham answered, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’ And the two of them went on together.”
Genesis 22:2, 7b-8
What can we say then about Abraham. Was he given secret knowledge or supernatural strength to follow after God? No. He was a man who understood that there was a God, the only God, and he could be trusted. It is on that basis that he can be called the father of our faith.
“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.”
Abraham did ordinary things in the ordinary way but did them out of an extraordinary faith. He traveled the trade routes, made wealth for himself, and was a prince among the people. But he did this as a gesture that one day his progeny would inherit the land that he inhabited. He listened to God and trusted him. His life pointed to a future in which God would dwell with His people. And his life, for that reason, is one worth emulating.
And because God found faith and a willingness to follow His ways in Abraham, Abraham was shown wonderful things. God spoke with him and revealed himself to him. He was able to see the miraculous birth of his son and a blessing on his work. Abraham became the father of the faithful billions – all because he trusted God. And it is that trust that God is looking for today.