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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible

Genesis 16

Verses 1-16

The History of Abraham

At this point the specific purpose of the writer of the Pentateuch begins to appear more clearly. Speaking generally, that purpose is to trace the development of the kingdom of God in the line of Israelitish history. To this subject the preceding chapters of Genesis have formed an introduction, dealing with universal history, and indicating the place of Israel among the other nations of the world. The narrative now passes from universal history to the beginnings of the chosen people and their subsequent fortunes. The connecting link is furnished in the person of Abraham, and interest is now concentrated on him, and the promises made to him.
Abraham is one of the very greatest figures in the religious history of the human race. Three great religions look back to him as one of their spiritual ancestors, and accept him as a type of perfect faith and true religion, viz. the Jewish, the Mohammedan, and the Christian. The world owes to him its first clear knowledge of the true God, His spiritual and holy nature, and the way in which He is to be served and worshipped. How much of this Abraham may have brought with him from Ur of the Chaldees we do not know. Recent discovery points to a very close connexion between the religions of Babylonia and Israel. That need not surprise us, nor does it impair the truth and value of the biblical narrative. Every religious system, not excepting Christianity itself, is based upon the foundations of the past. What we find in Abraham is a new point of departure. Religious beliefs, opinions, laws, and ideals, which he inherited, are, by a power which we cannot explain but can only define as the inspiration of God, purified and elevated, with the result that religion starts afresh with him on a higher level. The affirmation of the truth of monotheism and the rejection of human sacrifice in the worship of God would, apart from other considerations, make Abraham rank among the foremost religious reformers the world has seen.

In recent times an attempt has been made to date the beginnings of Israel's religion from Moses, and to represent the patriarchs as 'shadows in the mist' of antiquity of whose personal existence and religious views nothing can be said with certainty. In particular the attempt has been made to reduce Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to later personifications of ancient tribes. The patriarchs, it is said, were not individuals but tribes, and what are represented as personal incidents in their lives are really events, naively and vividly described, in the history of the various tribes to which the nation of Israel owed its descent. In some cases such personification of tribes may be admitted; e.g. Canaan, Japheth, and Shem clearly represent tribes in the blessing of Noah (Genesis 9:25-27; Gen 10:1-32), cp. also intro. to Genesis 49:0. The same is true of Ishmael in Genesis 16:12, and of Esau, who is called Edom in Genesis 25:30; Genesis 36:1, Genesis 36:8, Genesis 36:19. But admitting that there may be an element of truth in this theory, and that the biographies of the patriarchs may have been idealised to some extent by the popular feelings and poetical reflection of later times, the view that sees in the story of the patriarchs nothing that is personal and historical is certainly extreme and improbable. Popular imagination may add and modify but it does not entirely create. It requires some historical basis to start from. That basis in the case of Abraham and the other patriarchs is popular oral tradition, and that this preserved a genuine historical kernel cannot be denied. The amount of personal incident, the circumstantiality, the wealth of detail contained in the patriarchal narratives, can only be rightly accounted for on the ground that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were real historical personages; leaders of distinct national and religious movements, who made their mark upon the whole course of subsequent history. Some time ago, when an utterly impenetrable veil of obscurity hung over all contemporary profane history, the biblical narrative of the patriarchs could find no corroboration elsewhere. But of late a flood of light has been thrown upon ancient Assyria, illuminating the very period to which Abraham belongs. A background has been provided for the patriarchal age; and our increasing knowledge of Babylonian civilisation and religion goes to substantiate the historical nature of the stories of Abraham and the other patriarchs, and shows that they might well be the products of such a country and such an age. We may go further, and say that later Jewish history seems to require such a historical basis as the patriarchal narratives furnish, as its starting-point and explanation. Abraham, and not Moses, is the father of the Jewish nation, and the founder of its distinctive religion. It was no new and unknown God in whose name Moses spoke to his brethren in Egypt. He was able to appeal to Israel in the name of a God who had already revealed Himself, in the name of 'the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.' See Exodus 3:6; Exodus 4:5, and note on the former passage.

The sections of the history of Abraham (Genesis 12-25) which are attributed to the Priestly source are the following: Genesis 11:27-32; Genesis 12:5; Genesis 13:6, Genesis 13:11-12; Genesis 16:1-3, Genesis 16:15-16; Genesis 17:1-27; Genesis 19:29; Genesis 21:1, Genesis 21:2-5; Genesis 23:0, Genesis 25:7-17. Those which form part of the Primitive narrative are: Genesis 12:1-4, Genesis 12:6; Genesis 13:5, Genesis 13:11, Genesis 13:12-18; Genesis 14:15, Genesis 16:4-14; Genesis 18:19 (except Gen 19:29), 20, 21 (mostly), 22, 24, Genesis 25:1-6, Genesis 25:18-34. They afford a good example of the characteristic differences in style of the two sources, as explained in the art. 'Origin of the Pentateuch.'

Verses 1-16

The History of Abraham

At this point the specific purpose of the writer of the Pentateuch begins to appear more clearly. Speaking generally, that purpose is to trace the development of the kingdom of God in the line of Israelitish history. To this subject the preceding chapters of Genesis have formed an introduction, dealing with universal history, and indicating the place of Israel among the other nations of the world. The narrative now passes from universal history to the beginnings of the chosen people and their subsequent fortunes. The connecting link is furnished in the person of Abraham, and interest is now concentrated on him, and the promises made to him.
Abraham is one of the very greatest figures in the religious history of the human race. Three great religions look back to him as one of their spiritual ancestors, and accept him as a type of perfect faith and true religion, viz. the Jewish, the Mohammedan, and the Christian. The world owes to him its first clear knowledge of the true God, His spiritual and holy nature, and the way in which He is to be served and worshipped. How much of this Abraham may have brought with him from Ur of the Chaldees we do not know. Recent discovery points to a very close connexion between the religions of Babylonia and Israel. That need not surprise us, nor does it impair the truth and value of the biblical narrative. Every religious system, not excepting Christianity itself, is based upon the foundations of the past. What we find in Abraham is a new point of departure. Religious beliefs, opinions, laws, and ideals, which he inherited, are, by a power which we cannot explain but can only define as the inspiration of God, purified and elevated, with the result that religion starts afresh with him on a higher level. The affirmation of the truth of monotheism and the rejection of human sacrifice in the worship of God would, apart from other considerations, make Abraham rank among the foremost religious reformers the world has seen.

In recent times an attempt has been made to date the beginnings of Israel's religion from Moses, and to represent the patriarchs as 'shadows in the mist' of antiquity of whose personal existence and religious views nothing can be said with certainty. In particular the attempt has been made to reduce Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to later personifications of ancient tribes. The patriarchs, it is said, were not individuals but tribes, and what are represented as personal incidents in their lives are really events, naively and vividly described, in the history of the various tribes to which the nation of Israel owed its descent. In some cases such personification of tribes may be admitted; e.g. Canaan, Japheth, and Shem clearly represent tribes in the blessing of Noah (Genesis 9:25-27; Gen 10:1-32), cp. also intro. to Genesis 49:0. The same is true of Ishmael in Genesis 16:12, and of Esau, who is called Edom in Genesis 25:30; Genesis 36:1, Genesis 36:8, Genesis 36:19. But admitting that there may be an element of truth in this theory, and that the biographies of the patriarchs may have been idealised to some extent by the popular feelings and poetical reflection of later times, the view that sees in the story of the patriarchs nothing that is personal and historical is certainly extreme and improbable. Popular imagination may add and modify but it does not entirely create. It requires some historical basis to start from. That basis in the case of Abraham and the other patriarchs is popular oral tradition, and that this preserved a genuine historical kernel cannot be denied. The amount of personal incident, the circumstantiality, the wealth of detail contained in the patriarchal narratives, can only be rightly accounted for on the ground that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were real historical personages; leaders of distinct national and religious movements, who made their mark upon the whole course of subsequent history. Some time ago, when an utterly impenetrable veil of obscurity hung over all contemporary profane history, the biblical narrative of the patriarchs could find no corroboration elsewhere. But of late a flood of light has been thrown upon ancient Assyria, illuminating the very period to which Abraham belongs. A background has been provided for the patriarchal age; and our increasing knowledge of Babylonian civilisation and religion goes to substantiate the historical nature of the stories of Abraham and the other patriarchs, and shows that they might well be the products of such a country and such an age. We may go further, and say that later Jewish history seems to require such a historical basis as the patriarchal narratives furnish, as its starting-point and explanation. Abraham, and not Moses, is the father of the Jewish nation, and the founder of its distinctive religion. It was no new and unknown God in whose name Moses spoke to his brethren in Egypt. He was able to appeal to Israel in the name of a God who had already revealed Himself, in the name of 'the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.' See Exodus 3:6; Exodus 4:5, and note on the former passage.

The sections of the history of Abraham (Genesis 12-25) which are attributed to the Priestly source are the following: Genesis 11:27-32; Genesis 12:5; Genesis 13:6, Genesis 13:11-12; Genesis 16:1-3, Genesis 16:15-16; Genesis 17:1-27; Genesis 19:29; Genesis 21:1, Genesis 21:2-5; Genesis 23:0, Genesis 25:7-17. Those which form part of the Primitive narrative are: Genesis 12:1-4, Genesis 12:6; Genesis 13:5, Genesis 13:11, Genesis 13:12-18; Genesis 14:15, Genesis 16:4-14; Genesis 18:19 (except Gen 19:29), 20, 21 (mostly), 22, 24, Genesis 25:1-6, Genesis 25:18-34. They afford a good example of the characteristic differences in style of the two sources, as explained in the art. 'Origin of the Pentateuch.'

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Bibliographical Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Genesis 16". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcb/genesis-16.html. 1909.