The Catholic Encyclopedia
The original form of the name, Abram, is apparently the Assyrian Abu-ramu. It is doubtful if the usual meaning attached to that word "lofty father", is correct. The meaning given to Abraham in Genesis 17:5 is popular word play, and the real meaning is unknown. The Assyriologist, Hommel suggests that in the Minnean dialect, the Hebrew letter Hê ("h") is written for long a. Perhaps here we may have the real derivation of the word, and Abraham may be only a dialectical form of Abram.
The story of Abraham is contained in the Book of Genesis, 11:26 to 25:18. We shall first give a brief outline of the Patriarch's life, as told in that portion of Genesis, then we shall in succession discuss the subject of Abraham from the viewpoints of the Old Testament, New Testament, profane history, and legend.
Thare had three sons, Abram, Nachor, and Aran. Abram married Sarai. Thare took Abram and his wife, Sarai, and Lot, the son of Aran, who was dead, and leaving Ur of the Chaldees, came to Haran and dwelt there till he died. Then, at the call of God, Abram, with his wife, Sarai, and Lot, and the rest of his belongings, went into the Land of Chanaan, amongst other places to Sichem and Bethel, where he built altars to the Lord.
A famine breaking out in Chanaan, Abram journeyed southward to Egypt, and when he had entered the land, fearing that he would be killed on account of his wife, Sarai, he bade her say she was his sister. The report of Sarai's beauty was brought to the Pharao, and he took her into his harem, and honoured Abram on account of her. Later, however finding out that she was Abram's wife, he sent her away unharmed, and, upbraiding Abram for what he had done, he dismissed him from Egypt.
From Egypt Abram came with Lot towards Bethel, and there, finding that their herds and flocks had grown to be very large, he proposed that they should separate and go their own ways. So Lot chose the country about the Jordan, whilst Abram dwelt in Chanaan, and came and dwelt in the vale of Mambre in Hebron.
Now, on account of a revolt of the Kings of Sodom and Gomorrha and other kings from Chodorlahomor King of Elam, after they had served him twelve years, he in the fourteenth year made war upon them with his allies, Thadal king of nations, Amraphel King of Senaar, and Arioch King of Pontus. The King of Elam was victorious, and had already reached Dan with Lot a prisoner and laden with spoil, when he was overtaken by Abram. With 318 men the patriarch surprises, attacks, and defeats him, he retakes Lot and the spoil, and returns in triumph.
On his way home, he is met by Melchisedech, king of Salem who brings forth bread and wine, and blesses him And Abram gives him tithes of all he has; but for himself he reserves nothing. God promises Abram that his seed shall be as the stars of heaven, and he shall possess the land of Chanaan. But Abram does not see how this is to be, for he has already grown old. Then the promise is guaranteed by a sacrifice between God and Abram, and by a vision and a supernatural intervention in the night.
Sarai, who was far advanced in years and had given up the idea of bearing children, persuaded Abram to take to himself her hand-maid, Agar. He does so, and Agar being with child despises the barren Sarai. For this Sarai afflicts her so that she flies into the desert, but is persuaded to return by an angel who comforts her with promises of the greatness of the son she is about to bear. She returns and brings forth Ismael.
Thirteen years later God appears to Abram and promises him a son by Sarai, and that his posterity will be a great nation. As a sign, he changes Abram's name to Abraham, Sarai's to Sara, and ordains the rite of circumcision. One day later, as Abraham is sitting by his tent, in the vale of Mambre, Jehovah with two angels appears to him in human form. He shows them hospitality. Then again the promise of a son named Isaac is renewed to Abraham. The aged Sarah hears incredulously and laughs. Abraham is then told of the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrha for their sins but obtains from Jehovah the promise that he will not destroy them if he finds ten just men therein. Then follows a description of the destruction of the two cities and the escape of Lot. Next morning Abraham, looking from his tent towards Sodom, sees the smoke of destruction ascending to heaven.
After this, Abraham moves south to Gerara, and again fearing for his life says of his wife, "she is my sister". The king of Gerara, Abimelech, sends and takes her, but learning in a dream that she is Abraham's wife he restores her to him untouched, and rebukes him and gives him gifts.
In her old age Sarah bears a son, Isaac, to Abraham, and he is circumcised on the eighth day. Whilst he is still young, Sarah is jealous, seeing Ismael playing with the child Isaac, so she procures that Agar and her son shall be cast out. Then Agar would have allowed Ismael to perish in the wilderness, had not an angel encouraged her by telling her of the boy's future.
Abraham is next related to have had a dispute with Abimelech over a well at Bersabee, which ends in a covenant being made between them. It was after this that the great trial of the faith of Abraham takes place. God commands him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. When Abraham has his arm raised and is in the very act of striking, an angel from heaven stays his hand and makes the most wonderful promises to him of the greatness of his posterity because of his complete trust in God.
Sarah dies at the age of 127, and Abraham, having purchased from Ephron the Hethite the cave in Machpelah near Mambre, buries her there.
His own career is not yet quite ended for first of all he takes a wife for his son Isaac, Rebecca from the city of Nachor in Mesopotamia. Then he marries Cetura, old though he is, and has by her six children. Finally, leaving all his possessions to Isaac, he dies at age 170, and is buried by Isaac and Ismael in the cave of Machpelah.
Abraham may be looked upon as the starting-point or source of Old Testament religion. So that from the days of Abraham men were wont to speak of God as the God of Abraham, whilst we do not find Abraham referring in the same way to anyone before him. So we have Abraham's servant speaking of "the God of my father Abraham" (Genesis 24:12). Jehovah, in an apparition to Isaac, speaks of himself as the God of Abraham (Genesis 26:24), and to Jacob he is "the God of my father Abraham" (Genesis 31:42). So, too, showing that the religion of Israel does not begin with Moses, God says to Moses: "I am the God of thy fathers, the God of Abraham" etc. (Ex. iii, 6). The same expression is used in the Psalms (xlvi, 10) and is common in the Old Testament. Abraham is thus selected as the first beginning or source of the religion of the children of Israel and the origin of its close connection with Jehovah, because of his faith, trust, and obedience to and in Jehovah and because of Jehovah's promises to him and to his seed. So, in Genesis, xv, 6, it is said: "Abram believed God, and it was reputed to him unto justice." This trust in God was shown by him when he left Haran and journeyed with his family into the unknown country of Chanaan. It was shown principally when he was willing to sacrifice his only son Isaac, in obedience to a command from God. It was on that occasion that God said: "Because thou hast not spared thy only begotten son for my sake I will bless thee" etc. (Genesis 22:16, 17). It is to this and other promises made so often by God to Israel that the writers of the Old Testament refer over and over again in confirmation of their privileges as the chosen people. These promises, which are recorded to have been made no less than eight times, are that God will give the land of Chanaan to Abraham and his seed (Genesis 12:7) that his seed shall increase and multiply as the stars of heaven; that he himself shall be blessed and that in him "all the kindred of the earth shall be blessed" (xii, 3). Accordingly the traditional view of the life of Abraham, as recorded in Genesis, is that it is history in the strict sense of the word. Thus Father von Hummelauer, S.J., in his commentary on Genesis in the "Cursus Scripturae Sacrae" (30), in answer to the question from what author the section on Abraham first proceeded, replies, from Abraham as the first source. Indeed he even says that it is all in one style, as a proof of its origin, and that the Passage, xxv, 5-11, concerning the goods, death, and burial of Abraham comes from Isaac. It must, however, be added that it is doubtful if Father von Hummelauer still adheres to these views, written before 1895, since he has much modified his position in the volume on Deuteronomy.
Quite a different view on the section of Genesis treating of Abraham, and indeed of the whole of Genesis, is taken by modern critical scholars. They almost unanimously hold that the narrative of the patriarch's life is composed practically in its entirety of three writings or writers called respectively the Jahvist, the Elohist, and the priestly writer, and denoted by the letters J, E, and P. J and E consisted of collections of stories relating to the patriarch, some of older, some of later, origin. Perhaps the stories of J show a greater antiquity than those of E. Still the two authors are very much alike, and it is not always easy to distinguish one from the other in the combined narrative of J and E. From what we can observe, neither the Jahvist nor the Elohist was a personal author. Both are rather schools, and represent the collections of many years. Both collections were closed before the time of the prophets; J some time in the ninth century B.C., and E early in the eighth century, the former probably in the South Kingdom, the latter in the North. Then towards the end of the kingdom, perhaps owing to the inconvenience of having two rival accounts of the stories of the patriarchs etc. going about, a redactor R.JE (?) combined the two collections in one, keeping as much as possible to the words of his sources, making as few changes as possible so as to fit them into one another, and perhaps mostly following J in the account of Abraham. Then in the fifth century a writer who evidently belonged to the sacerdotal caste wrote down again an account of primitive and patriarchal history from the priestly point of view. He attached great importance to clearness and exactness; his accounts of things are often cast into the shape of formulas (cf. Genesis 1); he is very particular about genealogies, also as to chronological notes. The vividness and colour of the older patriarchal narratives, J and E, are wanting in the later one, which in the main is as formal as a legal document, though at times it is not wanting in dignity and even grandeur, as is the case in the first chapter of Genesis. Finally, the moral to be drawn from the various events narrated is more clearly set forth in this third writing and, according to the critics the moral standpoint is that of the fifth century B.C. Lastly, after the time of Ezra, this last history, P was worked up into one with the already combined narrative J.E. by a second redactor R. JEP, the result being the present history of Abraham, and indeed the present book of Genesis; though in all probability insertions were made at even a later date.
The generation of Jesus Christ is traced back to Abraham by St. Matthew, and though in Our Lord's genealogy, according to St. Luke, he is shown to be descended according to the flesh not only from Abraham but also from Adam, still St. Luke shows his appreciation of the fruits of descent from Abraham by attributing all the blessings of God on Israel to the promises made to Abraham. This he does in the Magnificat, iii, 55, and in the Benedictus, iii, 73. Moreover, as the New Testament traces the descent of Jesus Christ from Abraham, so it does of all the Jews; though as a rule, when this is done, it is accompanied with a note of warning, lest the Jews should imagine that they are entitled to place confidence in the fact of their carnal descent from Abraham, without anything further. Thus (Luke 3:8) John the Baptist says: "Do not begin to say: We have Abraham for our father, for I say to you God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham." In Luke 19:9 our Saviour calls the sinner Zacheus a son of Abraham, as he likewise calls a woman whom he had healed a daughter of Abraham (Luke 13:16); but in these and many similar cases, is it not merely another way of calling them Jews or Israelites, just as at times he refers to the Psalms under the general name of David, without implying that David wrote all the Psalms, and as he calls the Pentateuch the Books of Moses, without pretending to settle the question of the authorship of that work? It is not carnal descent from Abraham to which importance is attached; rather, it is to practising the virtues attributed to Abraham in Genesis. Thus in John 8, the Jews, to whom Our Lord was speaking, boast (33): "We are the seed of Abraham", and Jesus replies (39): "If ye be the children of Abraham, do the works of Abraham". St. Paul, too, shows that he is a son of Abraham and glories in that fact as in 2 Corinthians 11:22, when he exclaims: "They are the seed of Abraham, so am I". And again (Romans 11:50): "I also am an Israelite, of the seed of Abraham", and he addresses the Jews of (Acts 13:26) as "sons of the race of Abraham". But, following the teaching of Jesus Christ St. Paul does not attach too much importance to carnal descent from Abraham; for he says (Galatians 3:29): "If you be Christ's, then you are the seed of Abraham", and again (Romans 9:6): "All are not Israelites who are of Israel; neither are all they who are the seed of Abraham, children". So, too, we can observe in all the New Testament the importance attached to the promises made to Abraham. In the Acts of the Apostles, iii, 25, St. Peter reminds the Jews of the promise, "in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed". So does St. Stephen in his speech before the Council (Acts 7), and St. Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews, vi, 13. Nor was the faith of the ancient patriarch less highly thought of by the New Testament writers. The passage of Genesis which was most prominently before them was xv, 6: "Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him unto justice." In Romans 4, St. Paul argues strongly for the supremacy of faith, which he says justified Abraham; ' for if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory, but not before God." The same idea is inculcated in the Epistle to the Galatians, iii, where the question is discussed: "Did you receive the spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?" St. Paul decides that it is by faith, and says: "Therefore they that are of faith shall be justified with faithful Abraham". It is clear that this language, taken by itself, and apart from the absolute necessity of good works upheld by St. Paul, is liable to mislead and actually has misled many in the history of the Church. Hence, in order to appreciate to the full the Catholic doctrine of faith, we must supplement St. Paul by St. James. In ii, 17-22, of the Catholic Epistle we read: "So faith also, if it have not works, is dead in itself. But some man will say: Thou hast faith, and I have works, show me thy faith without works, and I will show thee by works my faith. Thou believest that there is one God. Thou dost well; the devils also believe and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, and by works faith was made perfect?"
In the seventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, St. Paul enters into a long discussion concerning the eternal priesthood of Jesus Christ. He recalls the words of the 109th psalm more than once, in which it is said: "Thou art a priest for ever according to the order of Melchisedech." He recalls the fact that Melchisedech is etymologically the king of justice and also king of peace; and moreover that he is not only king, but also priest of the Most High God. Then, calling to mind that there is no account of his father, mother, or genealogy, nor any record of his heirs, he likens him to Christ king and priest; no Levite nor according to the order of Aaron, but a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech.
One is inclined to ask, when considering the light which profane history may shed on the life of Abraham: Is not the life of the patriarch incredible? That question may be, and is, answered in different ways, according to the point of view of the questioner. Perhaps it will not be without interest to quote the answer of Professor Driver, an able and representative exponent of moderate critical views:
Do the patriarchal narratives contain intrinsic historical improbabilities? Or, in other words, is there anything intrinsically improbable in the lives of the several patriarchs, and the vicissitudes through which they severally pass? In considering this question a distinction must be drawn between the different sources of which these narratives are composed. Though particular details in them may be improbable, and though the representation may in parts be coloured by the religious and other associations of the age in which they were written, it cannot be said that the biographies of the first three patriarchs, as told in J and E, are, generally speaking, historically improbable; the movements and general lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are, taken on the whole, credible (Genesis, p. xlvi).
Such is the moderate view; the advanced attitude is somewhat different." The view taken by the patient reconstructive criticism of our day is that, not only religiously, but even, in a qualified sense, historically also, the narratives of Abraham have a claim on our attention" (Cheyne, Encyc. Bib., 26). Coming now to look at the light thrown by profane history upon the stories of Abraham's life as given in Genesis, we have, first of all, the narratives of ancient historians, as Nicholas of Damascus, Berosus, Hecateus, and the like. Nicholas of Damascus tells how Abraham, when he left Chaldea lived for some years in Damascus. In fact in Josephus he is said to have been the fourth king of that city. But then there is no practical doubt that this story is based on the words of Genesis 14:15, in which the town of Damascus is mentioned. As to the great man whom Josephus mentions as spoken of by Berosus, there is nothing to show that that great man was Abraham. In the "Praeparatio Evang." of Eusebius there are extracts recorded from numerous ancient writers, but no historical value can be attached to them. In fact, as far as ancient historians are concerned, we may say that all we know about Abraham is contained in the book of Genesis.
A much more important and interesting question is the amount of value to be attached to the recent archaeological discoveries of Biblical and other explorers in the East. Archaeologists like Hommel, and more especially Sayce, are disposed to attach very great significance to them. They say, in fact, that these discoveries throw a serious element of doubt over many of the conclusions of the higher critics. On the other hand, critics, both advanced as Cheyne and moderate as Driver, do not hold the deductions drawn by these archaeologists from the evidence of the monuments in very high esteem, but regard them as exaggerations. To put the matter more precisely, we quote the following from Professor Sayce, to enable the reader to see for himself what he thinks (Early Hist. of the Hebrews, 8):" Cuneiform tablets have been found relating to Chodorlahomor and the other kings of the East mentioned in the 14th chapter of Genesis, while in the Tel-el-Amarna correspondence the king of Jerusalem declares that he had been raised to the throne by the 'arm' of his God, and was therefore, like Melchisedech, a priest-king. But Chodorlahomor and Melchisedech had long ago been banished to mythland and criticism could not admit that archaeological discovery had restored them to actual history. Writers, accordingly, in complacent ignorance of the cuneiform texts, told the Assyriologists that their translations and interpretations were alike erroneous." That passage will make it clear how much the critics and archaeologists are at variance. But no one can deny that Assyriology has thrown some light on the stories of Abraham and the other patriarchs. Thus the name of Abraham was known in those ancient times; for amongst other Canaanitish or Amorite names found in deeds of sale of that period are those of Abi-ramu, or Abram, Jacob-el (Ya'qub-il), and Josephel (Yasub-il). So, too, of the fourteenth chapter of Genesis, which relates the war of Chodorlahomor and his allies in Palestine, it is not so long ago that the advanced critics relegated it to the region of fable, under the conviction that Babylonians and Elamites at that early date in Palestine and the surrounding country was a gross anachronism. But now Professor Pinches has deciphered certain inscriptions relating to Babylonia in which the five kings, Amraphel King of Senaar, Arioch King of Pontus, Chodorlahomor King of the Elamites, and Thadal King of nations, are identified with Hammurabi King of Babylon, Eri-aku, Kudur-laghghamar, and Tuduchula, son of Gazza, and which tells of a campaign of these monarchs in Palestine. So that no one can any longer assert that the war spoken of in Genesis, xiv, can only be a late reflection of the wars of Sennacherib and others in the times of the kings. From the Tel-el-Amarna tablets we know that Babylonian influence was predominant in Palestine in those days. Moreover, we have light thrown by the cuneiform inscriptions upon the incident of Melchisedech. In Genesis 14:18, it is said: "Melchisedech, the King of Salem, bringing forth bread and wine, for he was the priest of the Most High God, blessed him." Amongst the Tel-el-Amarna letters is one from Ebed-Tob, King of Jerusalem (the city is Ursalim, i.e. city of Salim, and it is spoken of as Salem). He is priest appointed by Salem, the god of Peace, and is hence both king and priest. In the same manner Melchisedech is priest and king, and naturally comes to greet Abraham returning in peace; and hence, too, Abraham offers to him as to a priest a tithe of the spoils. On the other hand, it must be stated that Professor Driver will not admit Sayce's deductions from the inscriptions as to Ebed Tob, and will not recognize any analogy between Salem and the Most High God.
Taking archaeology as a whole, it cannot be doubted that no definite results have been attained as to Abraham. What has come to light is susceptible of different interpretations. But there is no doubt that archaeology is putting an end to the idea that the patriarchal legends are mere myth. They are shown to be more than that. A state of things is being disclosed in patriarchal times quite consistent with much that is related in Genesis, and at times even apparently confirming the facts of the Bible.
We come now to the question: how far legend plays a part in the life of Abraham as recorded in Genesis. It is a practical and important question, because it is so much discussed by modern critics and they all believe in it. In setting forth the critical view on the subject, I must not be taken as giving my own views also.
Hermann Gunkel, in the Introduction to his Commentary on Genesis (3) writes: "There is no denying that there are legends in the Old Testament, consider for instance the stories of Samson and Jonah. Accordingly it is not a matter of belief or scepticism, but merely a matter of obtaining better knowledge, to examine whether the narratives of Genesis are history or legend." And again: "In a people with such a highly developed poetical faculty as Israel there must have been a place for saga too. The senseless confusion of 'legend' with 'lying' has caused good people to hesitate to concede that there are legends in the Old Testament. But legends are not lies; on the contrary, they are a particular form of poetry." These passages give a very good idea of the present position of the Higher Criticism relative to the legends of Genesis, and of Abraham in particular.
The first principle enunciated by the critics is that the accounts of the primitive ages and of the patriarchal times originated amongst people who did not practise the art of writing. Amongst all peoples, they say, poetry and saga were the first beginning of history; so it was in Greece and Rome, so it was in Israel. These legends were circulated, and handed down by oral tradition, and contained, no doubt, a kernel of truth. Very often, where individual names are used these names in reality refer not to individuals but to tribes, as in Genesis 10, and the names of the twelve Patriarchs, whose migrations are those of the tribes they represent. It is not of course to be supposed that these legends are no older than the collections J, E, and P, in which they occur. They were in circulation ages before, and for long periods of time, those of earlier origin being shorter, those of later origin longer, often rather romances than legends, as that of Joseph. Nor were they all of Israelitish origin; some were Babylonian, some Egyptian. As to how the legends arose, this came about, they say, in many ways. At times the cause was etymological, to explain the meaning of a name, as when it is said that Isaac received his name because his mother laughed (cahaq); sometimes they were ethnological, to explain the geographical position, the adversity, or prosperity, of a certain tribe; sometimes historical, sometimes ceremonial, as the account explaining the covenant of circumcision; sometimes geological, as the explanation of the appearance of the Dead Sea and its surroundings. Ætiological legends of this kind form one class of those to be found in the lives of the patriarchs and elsewhere in Genesis. But there are others besides which do not concern us here.
When we try to discover the age of the formation of the patriarchal legends, we are confronted with a question of great complexity. For it is not merely a matter of the formation of the simple legends separately, but also of the amalgamation of these into more complex legends. Criticism teaches us that that period would have ended about the year 1200 B.C. Then would have followed the period of remodeling the legends, so that by 900 B.C. they would have assumed substantially the form they now have. After that date, whilst the legends kept in substance to the form they had received, they were modified in many ways so as to bring them into conformity with the moral standard of the day, still not so completely that the older and less conventional ideas of a more primitive age did not from time to time show through them. At this time, too, many collections of the ancient legends appear to have been made, much in the same way as St. Luke tells us in the beginning of his Gospel that many had written accounts of Our Saviour's life on their own authority.
Amongst other collections were those of J in the South and E in the North. Whilst others perished these two survived, and were supplemented towards the end of the captivity by the collection of P, which originated amidst priestly surroundings and was written from the ceremonial standpoint. Those that hold these views maintain that it is the fusion of these three collections of legends which has led to confusion in some incidents in the life of Abraham as for instance in the case of Sarai in Egypt, where her age seems inconsistent with her adventure with the Pharao. Hermann Gunkel writes (148): "It is not strange that the chronology of P displays everywhere the most absurd oddities when injected into the old legends, as a result, Sarah is still at sixty-five a beautiful woman whom the Egyptians seek to capture, and Ishmael is carried on his mother's shoulders after he is a youth of sixteen."
The collection of P was intended to take the place of the old combined collection of J and E. But the old narrative had a firm hold of the popular imagination and heart. And so the more recent collection was combined with the other two, being used as the groundwork of the whole, especially in chronology. It is that combined narrative which we now possess.
These files are public domain.
Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Abraham'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/a/abraham.html. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.