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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible
ABRAHAM . Abram and Abraham are the two forms in which the name of the first patriarch was handed down in Hebrew tradition. The change of name recorded in Genesis 17:5 (P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] ) is a harmonistic theory, which involves an impossible etymology, and cannot be regarded as historical. Of Abraham no better explanation has been suggested than that it is possibly a dialectic or orthographic variation of Abram , which in the fuller forms AbirÃ¢m and Aburamu is found as a personal name both in Heb. and Babylonian. The history of Abraham ( Genesis 11:27 to Genesis 25:18 ) consists of a number of legendary narratives, which have been somewhat loosely strung together into a semblance of biographical continuity. These narratives (with the exception of ch. 14, which is assigned to a special source) are apportioned by critics to the three main documents of Genesis, J [Note: Jahwist.] , E [Note: Elohist.] , and P [Note: Priestly Narrative.]; and the analysis shows that the biographic arrangement is not due solely to the compiler of the Pent., but existed in the separate sources. In them we can recognize, amidst much diversity, the outlines of a fairly solid and consistent tradition, which may be assumed to have taken shape at different centres, such as the sanctuaries of Hebron and Beersheba.
1 . The account of J [Note: Jahwist.] opens with the Divine call to Abraham, in obedience to which he separates himself from his kindred and migrates to Canaan ( Genesis 12:1-8 ).
In the proper Jahwistic tradition the starting-point of the Exodus was Harran in Mesopotamia, but in Genesis 11:28 ff. (cf. Genesis 15:7 ) we find combined with this another view, according to which Abraham came from Ur of the Chaldees in S. Babylonia. In passing we may note the remarkable fact that both traditions alike connect the patriarch with famous centres of Babylonian moon-worship.
Arrived in Canaan, Abraham builds altars at Shechem, where he receives the first promise of the land, and Bethel, where the separation from Lot takes place; after which Abraham resumes his southern journey and takes up his abode at Hebron (ch. 13). This connexion is broken in Genesis 12:10-20 by the episode of Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt, which probably belongs to an older stratum of Jahwistic tradition representing him as leading a nomadic life in the Negeb. To the same cycle we may assign the story of Hagar’s flight and the prophecy regarding Ishmael, in ch. 16; here, too, the home of Abraham is apparently located in the Negeb. In ch. 18 we find Abraham at Hebron, where in a theophany he receives the promise of a son to be born to Sarah, and also an intimation of the doom impending over the guilty cities of the Plain. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the deliverance of Lot, are graphically described in ch. 19, which closes with an account of the shameful origins of Moab and Ammon. Passing over some fragmentary notices in ch. 21, which have been amalgamated with the fuller narrative of E [Note: Elohist.] , we come to the last scene of J [Note: Jahwist.] ’s record, the mission of Abraham’s servant to seek a bride for Isaac, told with such dramatic power in ch. 24. It would seem that the death of Abraham, of which J [Note: Jahwist.] ’s account has nowhere been preserved, must have taken place before the servant returned. A note is appended in Genesis 25:1 ff. as to the descent of 16 Arabian tribes from Abraham and Keturah.
2 . Of E [Note: Elohist.] ’s narrative the first traces appear in ch. 15, a composite and difficult chapter, whose kernel probably belongs rather to this document than to J [Note: Jahwist.] . In its present form it narrates the renewal to Abraham of the two great promises on which his faith rested the promise of a seed and of the land of Canaan and the confirmation of the latter by an impressive ceremony in which God entered into a covenant with the patriarch. The main body of Elohistic tradition, however. Is found in chs. 20 22. We have here a notice of Abraham’s arrival in the Negeb, followed by a sojourn in Gerar, where Sarah’s honour is compromised by the deliberate concealment of the fact that she is married (ch. 20) a variant form of the Jahwistic legend of Genesis 12:10-20 . The expulsion of Hagar, recorded in Genesis 21:9-21 , is an equally obvious parallel to J [Note: Jahwist.] ’s account of the flight of Hagar in ch. 16, although in E [Note: Elohist.] the incident follows, while in J [Note: Jahwist.] it precedes, the births of both Ishmael and Isaac. The latter part of ch. 21 is occupied with the narrative of Abraham’s adventures in the Negeb especially his covenant with Abimelech of Gerar which leads up to the consecration of the sanctuary of Beersheba to the worship of Jahweh. Here the narrative has been supplemented by extracts from a Jahwistic recension of the same tradition. To E [Note: Elohist.] , finally, we are indebted for the fascinating story of the sacrifice of Isaac in ch. 22, which may be fairly described as the gem of this collection.
3 . In P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , the biography of Abraham is mostly reduced to a chronological epitome, based on the narrative of J [Note: Jahwist.] , and supplying some gaps left by the compiler in the older document. There are just two places where the meagre chronicle expands into elaborately circumstantial description. The first is the account, in ch. 17, of the institution of circumcision as the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham, round which are gathered all the promises which in the earlier documents are connected with various experiences in the patriarch’s life. The second incident is the purchase of the cave of Machpelah after the death of Sarah, recorded at great length in ch. 23: this is peculiar to P [Note: Priestly Narrative.] , and was evidently of importance to that writer as a guarantee of Israel’s perpetual tenure of the land of Canaan.
4 . Such is, in outline, the history of Abraham as transmitted through the recognized literary channels of the national tradition. We have yet to mention an episode, concerning which there is great diversity of opinion, the story of Abraham’s victory over the four kings, and his interview with Melchizedek, in ch. 14. It is maintained by some that this chapter hears internal marks of authenticity not possessed by the rest of the Abrahamic tradition, and affords a firm foothold for the belief that Abraham is a historic personage of the 3rd millennium b.c., contemporary with Hammurabi (Amraphel?) of Babylon ( c [Note: circa, about.] . 2300). Others take a diametrically opposite view, holding that it is a late Jewish romance, founded on imperfectly understood data derived from cuneiform sources. The arguments on either side cannot he given here; it must suffice to remark that, even if convincing proof of the historicity of ch. 14 could be produced, it would still he a question whether that judgment could be extended to the very different material of the undisputed Hebrew tradition. It is much more important to inquire what is the historical value of the tradition which lies immediately behind the more popular narratives in which the religious significance of Abraham’s character is expressed. That these are history in the strict sense of the word is a proposition to which no competent scholar would assent. They are legends which had circulated orally for an indefinite time, and had assumed varied forms, before they were collected and reduced to writing. The only question of practical moment is whether the legends have clustered round the name of a historic personality, the leader of an immigration of AramÃ¦an tribes into Palestine, and at the same time the recipient of a new revelation of God which prepared the way for the unique religious history and mission of Israel. It cannot be said that this view of Abraham has as yet obtained any direct confirmation from discoveries in Assyriology or archÃ¦ology, though it is perhaps true that recent developments of these sciences render the conception more intelligible than it formerly was. And there is nothing, either in the tradition itself or in our knowledge of the background against which it is set, that is inconsistent with the supposition that to the extent just indicated the figure of Abraham is historical. If it be the essence of legend, as distinct from myth, that it originates in the impression made by a commanding personality on his contemporaries, we may well believe that the story of Abraham, bearing as it does the stamp of ethical character and individuality, is a true legend, and therefore has grown up around some nucleus of historic fact.
5 . From the religious point of view, the life of Abraham has a surprising inner unity as a record of the progressive trial and strengthening of faith. It is a life of unclouded earthly prosperity, broken by no reverse of fortune; yet it is rooted in fellowship with the unseen. ‘He goes through life,’ it has been well said, ‘listening for the true tÃ´rÃ¢ , which is not shut up in formal precepts, but revealed from time to time to the conscience; and this leaning upon God’s word is declared to be in Jahweh’s sight a proof of genuine righteousness.’ He is the Father of the faithful, and the Friend of God. And that inward attitude of spirit is reflected in a character of singular loftiness and magnanimity, an unworldly and disinterested disposition which reveals no moral struggle, but is nevertheless the fruit of habitual converse with God. The few narratives which present the patriarch in a less admirable light only throw into bolder relief those ideal features of character in virtue of which Abraham stands in the pages of Scripture as one of the noblest types of Hebrew piety.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Abraham'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdb/a/abraham.html. 1909.
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