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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
אברם , a high father; and ABRAHAM, אברהם father of a great multitude, the son of Terah, born at Ur, a city of Chaldea, A.M. 2008. The account of this eminent patriarch occupies so large a part of the book of Genesis, and stands so intimately connected with both the Jewish and Christian dispensations,—with the one by a political and religious, and with the other by a mystical, relation,—that his history demands particular notice. Our account may be divided into his personal history, and his typical, and mystic character.
I. Abraham's PERSONAL history.
1. Chaldea, the native country of Abraham, was inhabited by a pastoral people, who were almost irresistibly invited to the study of the motions of the heavenly bodies, by the peculiar serenity of the heavens in that climate, and their habit of spending their nights in the open air in tending their flocks. The first rudiments of astronomy, as a science, is traced to this region; and here, too, one of the earliest forms of idolatry, the worship of the host of heaven, usually called Tsabaism, first began to prevail. During the three hundred and fifty years which elapsed between the deluge and the birth of Abraham, this and other idolatrous superstitions had greatly corrupted the human race, perverted the simple forms of the patriarchal religion, and beclouded the import of its typical rites. The family of Abraham was idolatrous, for his "fathers served other gods beyond the flood," that is, the great river Euphrates; but whether he himself was in the early period of his life an idolater, we are not informed by Moses. The Arabian and Jewish legends speak of his early idolatry, his conversion from it, and of his zeal in breaking the images in his father's house; but these are little to be depended upon. Before his call he was certainly a worshipper of the true God; and that not in form only, but "in spirit and in truth." Whilst Abraham was still sojourning in Ur, "the God of glory" appeared to him, and said unto him, "Get thee out of thy country and from thy kindred, and go into the land which I shall show thee;" and so firm was his faith in the providence and care of God, that although the place of his future abode was not indicated, nor any information given of the nature of the country, or the character of its inhabitants, he nevertheless promptly obeyed, and "went out, not knowing whither he went." Terah his father, Nahor his brother, and Lot his nephew, the son of Haran his deceased brother, accompanied him; a circumstance which indicates that if the family had formerly been idolatrous it had now received the faith of Abraham. They first migrated to Haran, or Charran, in Mesopotamia, a flat, barren region westward of Ur; and after a residence there of a few years, during which Terah had died, Abraham left Haran to go into Palestine, taking with him Sarah his wife, who had no child, and Lot, with his paternal property. Nahor appears to have been left in Haran. To this second migration he was incited also by a Divine command, accompanied by the promises of a numerous issue, that his seed should become a great nation, and, above all, that "in him all the families of the earth should be blessed; " in other words, that the Messiah, known among the patriarchs as the promised "seed of the woman," should be born in his line. Palestine was then inhabited by the Canaanites, from whom it was called Canaan. Abraham, leading his tribe, first settled at Sechem, a valley between the mountains Ebal and Gerizim, where God appeared to him and promised to give him the land of Canaan, and where, as in other places in which he remained any time, he built an altar to the Lord. He then removed to a hilly region on the north of Jericho; and as the pastures were exhausted, migrated southward, till a famine drove him into Egypt, probably the earliest, certainly the most productive, corn country of the ancient world.
2. Here it may be observed, that the migrations of Abraham and his sons show the manner in which the earth was gradually covered with people. In those ages some cities had been built, and the country to some extent about them cultivated; but wide spaces of unoccupied land lay between them. A part of society following therefore the pastoral life, led forth their flocks, and, in large family tribes, of which the parent was the head, uniting both the sovereign power and the priesthood in himself, and with a train of servants attached to the tribe by hereditary ties, pitched their camps wherever a fertile and unappropriated district offered them pasture. A few of these nomadic tribes appear to have made the circuit of the same region, seldom going far from their native seats; which would probably have been the case with Abraham, had he not received the call of God to depart to a distant country. Others, more bold, followed the track of rivers, and the sweep of fertile valleys, and at length some built cities and formed settlements in those distant regions; whilst others, either from attachment to their former mode of life, or from necessity, continued in their pastoral occupations, and followed the supplies afforded for their flocks by the still expanding regions of the fertile earth. Wars and violences, droughts, famines, and the constant increase of population, continued to impel these innumerable, but at first, small streams of men into parts still more remote. Those who settled on the sea coast began to use that element, both for supplying themselves with a new species of food, and as a medium of communication by vessels with other countries for the interchange of such commodities as their own lands afforded with those offered by maritime states, more or less distant. Thus were laid the foundations of commerce, and thus the maritime cities were gradually rendered opulent and powerful. Colonies were in time transported from them by means of their ships, and settled on the coasts of still more distant and fertile countries. Thus the migrations of the three primitive families proceeded from the central regions of Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria; and in succession they established numerous communities,—the Phenicians, Arabians, Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Lybians southward;—the Persians, Indians, and Chinese eastward;—the Scythians, Celts, and Tartars northward;—and the Goths, Greeks, and Latins westward, even as far as the Peruvians and Mexicans of South America, and the Indians of North America.
3. Abraham, knowing the dissolute character of the Egyptians, directed Sarah to call herself his sister, which she was, although by another mother; fearing that if they knew her to be his wife, they would not only seize her, but kill him. This circumstance indicates the vicious state of morals and government in Egypt at this early period. In this affair Abraham has been blamed for want of faith in God; but it was perhaps no more than an act of common prudence, as the Seraglio of the Egyptian monarch was supplied by any means, however violent and lawless. Sarah, upon the report of her beauty, was seized and taken into his harem; and God sent great plagues upon his house, which, from their extraordinary character, he concluded to be divine judgments. This led to inquiry, and on discovering that he was detaining another man's wife by violence, he sent her back, and dismissed Abraham laden with presents.
4. After the famine Abraham returned to Canaan, and pitched his tents between Bethel and Hai, where he had previously raised an altar. Here, as his flocks and herds, and those of Lot, had greatly increased, and strifes had arisen between their herdsmen as to pasturage and water, they peaceably separated. Lot returning to the plain of the Jordan, which before the destruction of Sodom was as "the garden of God," and Abraham to Mamre, near Hebron, after receiving a renewal of the promise, that God would give him the whole land for a possession. The separation of Abraham and Lot still farther secured the unmingled descent of the Abrahamitic family. The territories of the kings of the cities of the plain were a few years afterward invaded by a confederacy of the petty kings of the Euphrates and the neighbouring countries, and Lot and his family were taken prisoners. This intelligence being brought to Abraham, he collected the men of his tribe, three hundred and eighteen, and falling upon the kings by night, near the fountains of Jericho, he defeated them, retook the spoil, and recovered Lot. On his return, passing near Salem, supposed to be the city afterward called Jerusalem, he was blessed by its king Melchizedec, who was priest of the most high God; so that the knowledge and worship of Jehovah had not quite departed at that time from the Canaanitish nations. To him Abraham gave a tithe of the spoil. The rest he generously restored to the king of Sodom, refusing, in a noble spirit of independence, to retain so much as a "shoe lachet," except the portion which, by usage of war, fell to the young native sheiks, Aner, Eschal, and Mamre, who had joined him in the expedition.
5. After this he had another encouraging vision of God, Genesis 15:1; and to his complaint that he was still childless, and that his name and property would descend to the stranger Eliezer, who held the next rank in his tribe, the promise was given, that he himself should have a son, and that his seed should be countless as the stars of heaven. And it is emphatically added, "He believed in the Lord, and he counted it to him for righteousness." He was then fully assured, that he stood before God, a pardoned and accepted man, "whose iniquities were forgiven," and to whom "the Lord did not impute sin." Still the fulfilment of the promise of a son was delayed; and Sarah, perhaps despairing that it would be accomplished in her person, and the revelation which had been made merely stating that his son should be the fruit of Abraham's body, without any reference to her, she gave to him, according to the custom of those times, one of her hand-maids, an Egyptian, to be his secondary wife, who brought forth Ishmael. Children born in this manner had the privileges of legitimacy; but fourteen years afterward, when Abraham was a hundred years old, and Sarah ninety, the Lord appeared to him again, established his covenant with him and with his seed, changed his name to Abraham, "the father of many nations," promised that Sarah herself should bring forth the son to whom the preceding promises had referred; instituted circumcision as the sign of the covenant; and changed the name of his wife from Sarai, my princess, to Sarah, the princess, that is, of many people to descend from her.
6. At this time Abraham occupied his former encampment near Hebron. Here, as he sat in the door of his tent, three mysterious strangers appeared. Abraham, with true Arabian hospitality, received and entertained them. The chief of the three renewed the promise of a son to be born from Sarah, a promise which she received with a laugh of incredulity, for which she was mildly reproved. As Abraham accompanied them toward the valley of the Jordan, the same divine person, for so he manifestly appears, announced the dreadful ruin impending over the licentious cities among which Lot had taken up his abode. No passage, even in the sacred writings, exhibits a more exalted view of the divine condescension than that in which Abraham is seen expostulating on the apparent injustice of involving the innocent in the ruin of the guilty: "Shall the city perish, if fifty, if forty-five, if forty, if thirty, if twenty, if ten righteous men be found within its walls?" "Ten righteous men shall avert its doom." Such was the promise of the celestial visitant; but the guilt was universal, the ruin inevitable; and the violation of the sacred laws of hospitality and nature, which Lot in his horror attempted to avert by the most revolting expedient, confirmed the justice of the divine sentence.
7. Sarah having conceived, according to the divine promise, Abraham left the plain of Mamre, and went south to Gerar, where Abimelech reigned; and again fearing lest Sarah should be forced from him, and himself be put to death, her beauty having been, it would appear, preternaturally continued, notwithstanding her age, he here called her, as he had done in Egypt, his sister. Abimelech took her to his house, designing to marry her; but God having, in a dream, informed him that she was Abraham's wife, he returned her to him with great presents. This year Sarah was delivered of Isaac; and Abraham circumcised him, according to the covenant stipulation; and when he was weaned, made a great entertainment. Sarah, having observed Ishmael, son of Hagar, mocking her son Isaac, said to Abraham, "Cast out this bondwoman and her son, for Ishmael shall not be heir with Isaac." After great reluctance, Abraham complied; God having informed him that this was according to the appointments of his providence, with respect to future ages. About the same time, Abimelech came with Phicol, his general, to conclude an alliance with Abraham, who made that prince a present of seven ewe lambs out of his flock, in confirmation that a well he had opened should be his own property; and they called the place Beer-sheba, or "the well of swearing," because of the covenant there ratified with oaths. Here Abraham planted a grove, built an altar, and for some time resided Genesis 21:21 .
8. More than twenty years after this, (A.M. 2133,) God, for the final trial and illustration of Abraham's faith, directed him to offer up his son Isaac. Abraham took his son, and two servants, and went toward Mount Moriah. When within sight of the mountain, Abraham left his servants, and ascended it with his son only; and there having bound him, he prepared for the affecting sacrifice; but when he was about to give the blow, an angel from heaven cried but to him, "Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing to him. Now I know that thou fearest God, since thou hast not withheld thine only son from me." Abraham, turning, saw a ram entangled in the bush by his horns; and he offered this animal as a burnt- offering, instead of his son Isaac. This memorable place he called by the prophetic name, Jehovah-jireh, or the Lord will see —or provide, Genesis 22:1-14 , having respect, no doubt, to the true sacrifice, which, in the fulness of time, was to be offered for the whole world upon the same mountain.
9. Twelve years afterward, Sarah, wife of Abraham, died in Hebron. Abraham came to mourn and to perform the funeral offices for her. He addressed the people at the city gate, entreating them to allow him to bury his wife among them; for, being a stranger, and having no land of his own, he could claim no right of interment in any sepulchre of that country. He, therefore, bought of Ephron, one of the inhabitants, the field of Machpelah, with the cave and sepulchre in it, at the price of four hundred shekels of silver, about forty-five pounds sterling. And here Abraham buried Sarah, with due solemnities, according to the custom of the country, Genesis 23. This whole transaction impressively illustrates the dignity, courtesy, and honour of these ancient chiefs; and wholly disproves the notion that theirs was a rude and unpolished age.
10. Abraham, having grown old, sent Eliezer, his steward, into Mesopotamia, with directions to obtain a young woman of his own family, as a wife for his son Isaac. Eliezer executed his commission with fidelity, and brought back Rebecca, daughter of Bethuel, grand-daughter of Nahor, and, consequently, Abraham's niece, whom Isaac married. Abraham afterward married Keturah; by whom he had six sons, Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah; who became heads of different people, which dwelt in Arabia, and around it. He died, aged a hundred and seventy-five years, and was buried, with Sarah his wife, in the cave of Machpelah, which he had purchased of Ephron, Genesis 24, 25, A.M. 2183, before Christ, 1821.
II. From the personal history of Abraham we may now proceed to the consideration of the TYPICAL circumstances which were connected with it.
1. Abraham himself with his family may be regarded as a type of the church of God in future ages. They indeed constituted God's ancient church. Not that many scattered patriarchal and family churches did not remain: such was that of Melchizedec; and such probably was that of Nahor, whom Abraham left behind in Mesopotamia. But a visible church relation was established between Abraham's family and the Most High, signified by the visible and distinguishing sacrament of circumcision, and followed by new and enlarged revelations of truth. Two purposes were to be answered by this,— the preservation of the true doctrine of salvation in the world, which is the great and solemn duty of every branch of the church of God,—and the manifestation of that truth to others. Both were done by Abraham. Wherever he sojourned he built his altars to the true God, and publicly celebrated his worship; and, as we learn from St. Paul, he lived in tents in preference to settling in the land of Canaan, though it had been given to him for a possession, in order that he might thus proclaim his faith in the eternal inheritance of which Canaan was a type; and in bearing this testimony, his example was followed by Isaac and Jacob, the "heirs with him of the same promise," who also thus "confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims," and that "they looked" for a continuing and eternal city in heaven. So also now is the same doctrine of immortality committed to the church of Christ; and by deadness to the world ought its members to declare the reality of their own faith in it.
2. The numerous natural posterity promised to Abraham was also a type of the spiritual seed, the true members of the church of Christ, springing from the Messiah, of whom Isaac was the symbol. Thus St. Paul expressly distinguishes between the fleshly and the spiritual seed of Abraham; to the latter of which, in their ultimate and highest sense, the promises of increase as the stars of heaven, and the sands of the sea shore, are to be referred, as also the promise of the heavenly Canaan.
3. The intentional offering up Isaac, with its result, was probably that transaction in which Abraham, more clearly than in any other, "saw the day of Christ, and was glad." He received Isaac from the dead, says St. Paul, "in a figure." This could be a figure of nothing but the resurrection of our Lord; and, if so, Isaac's being laid upon the altar was a figure of his sacrificial death, scenically and most impressively represented to Abraham. The place, the same ridge of hills on which our Lord was crucified; the person, an only son, to die for no offence of his own; the sacrificer, a father; the receiving back, as it were, from death to life; the name impressed upon the place, importing, "the Lord will provide," in allusion to Abraham's own words to Isaac, "the Lord will provide a lamb for a burnt-offering;" all indicate a mystery which lay deep beneath this transaction, and which Abraham, as the reward of his obedience, was permitted to behold. "The day" of Christ's humiliation and exaltation was thus opened to him; and served to keep the great truth in mind, that the true burnt-offering and sacrifice for sin was to be something higher than the immolation of lambs, and bulls, and goats,—nay, something more than what was merely human.
4. The transaction of the expulsion of Hagar was also a type. It was an allegory in action, by which St. Paul teaches us to understand that the son of the bondwoman represented those who are under the law; and the child of the freewoman those who by faith in Christ are supernaturally begotten into the family of God. The bondwoman and her son being cast out, represented also the expulsion of the unbelieving Jews from the church of God, which was to be composed of true believers of all nations, all of whom, whether Jews or Gentiles, were to become "fellow heirs."
III. But Abraham appears before us invested with a MYSTIC character, which it is of great importance rightly to understand.
1. He is to be regarded as standing in a federal or covenant relation, not only to his natural seed, but specially and eminently to all believers. "The Gospel," we are told by St. Paul, "was preached to Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed." "Abraham believed in God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness;" in other words, he was justified. A covenant of gratuitous justification through faith was made with him and his believing descendants; and the rite of circumcision, which was not confined to his posterity by Sarah, but appointed in every branch of his family, was the sign or sacrament of this covenant of grace, and so remained till it was displaced by the sacraments appointed by Christ. Wherever that sign was it declared the doctrine, and offered the grace, of this covenant—free justification by faith, and its glorious results—to all the tribes that proceeded from Abraham. This same grace is offered to us by the Gospel, who become "Abraham's seed," his spiritual children with whom the covenant is established, through the same faith, and are thus made "the heirs with him of the same promise."
2. Abraham is also exhibited to us as the representative of true believers; and in this especially, that the true nature of faith was exhibited in him. This great principle was marked in Abraham with the following characters:—An entire unhesitating belief in the word of God;—an unfaltering trust in all his promises;—a steady, regard to his almighty power, leading him to overlook all apparent difficulties and impossibilities in every case where God had explicitly promised;—and habitual and cheerful and entire obedience. The Apostle has described faith in Hebrews 11:1; and that faith is seen living and acting in all its energy in Abraham.
A few miscellaneous remarks are suggested by some of the circumstances of Abraham's history:—
1. The ancient method of ratifying a covenant by sacrifice is illustrated in the account given in Genesis 15:9-10 . The beasts were slain and divided in the midst, and the persons covenanting passed between the parts. Hence, after Abraham had performed this part of the ceremony, the symbol of the Almighty's presence, "a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp, passed between the pieces," Genesis 15:18 , and so both parties ratified the covenant.
2. As the beauty of Sarah, which she retained so long as quite to conceal her real age from observers, attracted so much notice as to lead to her forcible seizure, once by Pharaoh in Egypt, and again by Abimelech in Palestine, it may appear strange, that, as in the east women are generally kept in seclusion, and seldom appear without veils, she exposed herself to observation. But to this day the Arab women do not wear veils at home in their tents; and Sarah's countenance might have been seen in the tent by some of the officers of Pharaoh and Abimelech, who reported her beauty to their masters.
3. The intentional offering up of Isaac is not to be supposed as viewed by Abraham as an act sanctioned by the Pagan practice of human sacrifice. The immolation of human victims, particularly of that which was most precious, the favourite, the first-born child, appears to have been a common usage among many early nations, more especially the tribes by which Abraham was surrounded. It was the distinguishing rite among the worshippers of Moloch; at a later period of the Jewish history, it was practised by a king of Moab; and it was undoubtedly derived by the Carthaginians from their Phenician ancestors on the shores of Syria. Where it was an ordinary usage, as in the worship of Moloch, it was in unison with the character of the religion, and of its deity. It was the last act of a dark and sanguinary superstition, which rose by regular gradation to this complete triumph over human nature. The god, who was propitiated by these offerings, had been satiated with more cheap and vulgar victims; he had been glutted to the full with human suffering and with human blood. In general it was the final mark of the subjugation of the national mind to an inhuman and domineering priesthood. But the Mosaic religion held human sacrifices in abhorrence; and the God of the Abrahamitic family, uniformly beneficent, had imposed no duties which entailed human suffering, had demanded no offerings which were repugnant to the better feelings of our nature. The command to offer Isaac as a "burnt offering," was for these reasons a trial the more severe to Abraham's faith. He must therefore have been fully assured of the divine command; and he left the mystery to be explained by God himself. His was a simple act of unhesitating obedience to the command of God; the last proof of perfect reliance on the certain accomplishment of the divine promises. Isaac, so miraculously bestowed, could be as miraculously restored; Abraham, such is the comment of the Christian Apostle, "believed that God could even raise him up from the dead."
4. The wide and deep impression made by the character of Abraham upon the ancient world is proved by the reverence which people of almost all nations and countries have paid to him, and the manner in which the events of his life have been interwoven in their mythology, and their religious traditions. Jews, Magians, Sabians, Indians, and Mohammedans have claimed him as the great patriarch and founder of their several sects; and his history has been embellished with a variety of fictions. One of the most pleasing of these is the following, but it proceeds upon the supposition that he was educated in idolatry: "As Abraham was walking by night from the grotto where he was born, to the city of Babylon, he gazed on the stars of heaven, and among them on the beautiful planet Venus. ‘Behold,' said he, within himself, ‘the God and Lord of the universe!' but the star set and disappeared, and Abraham felt that the Lord of the universe could not thus be liable to change. Shortly after, he beheld the moon at the full: ‘Lo,' he cried, ‘the Divine Creator, the manifest Deity!' but the moon sank below the horizon, and Abraham made the same reflection as at the setting of the evening star. All the rest of the night he passed in profound rumination; at sunrise he stood before the gates of Babylon, and saw the whole people prostrate in adoration. ‘Wondrous orb,' he exclaimed, ‘thou surely art the Creator and Ruler of all nature! but thou, too, hastest like the rest to thy setting!—neither then art thou my Creator, my Lord, or my God!'"
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Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Abram'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wtd/​a/abram.html. 1831-2.