What is the biblical account of Abraham?
About 1900 years after the creation of the world, and about 2150 years before the birth of Christ, Abram was born to Terah, descendant of Noah's son Shem, in the land of Ur, about 220 miles southeast of modern Baghdad, Iraq. Abram's youngest brother, Haran, died, and Abram unofficially adopted Haran's son Lot. Abram ("exalted father") and his wife Sarai (who was also Abram's half-sister — Genesis 20:12) were childless. While still in Ur, God called Abram to leave his homeland and travel west to the land of Canaan, in modern-day Israel (Acts 7:2-3). Terah and Lot joined him, travelling part way before settling and building a community Terah named "Haran" after his late son. Terah stayed, eventually dying there, while God reiterated His call to Abram.
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Abram, Sarai, Lot, and their extended families traveled to Shechem near modern Nablus, about 30 miles north of Jerusalem, where Abram built an altar to God. They pitched camp another 20 miles south. From there they traveled southwest to the Negev, then spent time in Egypt to escape a famine in Canaan. While in Egypt, Abram deceived the Pharaoh, telling him that he was not married to the beautiful Sarai. The Pharaoh took Sarai for himself and paid Abram richly for her. But God sent plagues until the Pharaoh realized he'd taken another man's wife and sent Sarai back to Abram.
The tribe headed back to their original camp site and settled until Lot realized the two families were too rich for the livestock feeding grounds. Lot moved to the valley of the Jordan, near Sodom, and Abram moved to the oaks of Mamre in Hebron, 22 miles south of Jerusalem.
Not long after, Lot, who had moved to Sodom proper, got entangled in a war between various eastern nations and Sodom and Gomorrah. In the midst of battle, he and his household were taken prisoner. Abram and his retainers marched in and rescued Lot, his people, and all their possessions.
We don't know exactly who Melchizedek (Genesis 14:17-24) was. He is described as the king of Salem (Jerusalem) and a priest outside of Abram's line (Hebrews 7). Some believe him to be an appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ, while others say he was just a righteous king in a wicked land. Whoever he was, he honored Abram's noble deed by providing rations for him and his troops. Abram submitted to him by tithing ten percent of the spoils they'd taken in battle. Abram had the opposite relationship to the king of Sodom. When the king demanded Abram take the spoils but leave the people, Abram insisted he would take nothing from Sodom save rations and whatever his allies were due; Abram would not allow others to think he was a vassal of Sodom.
Then came the somewhat confusing ceremony marking God's formal covenant with Abram (Genesis 15). God assured Abram that his heir will not be his senior servant (which was tradition for a childless patriarch), but a son by blood. In fact, God said, Abram's descendants will be like the stars in the sky. Abram made a conscious choice to believe God's promise but still asked for an official sign. God had Abram bring a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove and a pigeon. The larger animals were cut in two and laid in rows. Abram fell asleep, and God again promised that Abram's tribe would inherit Canaan — but not yet. Two things had to happen first. Abram's descendants would be enslaved for four hundred years and escape with many possessions. And the natives of the land needed to get to the point where the evil they chose was so abominable that total destruction was the only appropriate measure. Then God passed between the pieces of the sacrifice and laid out the exact borders of Abram's inheritance. Although the first part of the prophecy came true with the exile in and escape from Egypt, Israel has never held those specific borders and probably won't until Jesus' Millennial Kingdom.
Unfortunately, Sarai was not reassured. Still childless, she took on the legal custom of the day and had Abram father a child with her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar (Genesis 16). Hagar bore a son, Ishmael, but Sarai grew jealous and eventually drove Hagar to take her son and leave. God met them in the wilderness, however, and promised that Ishmael would grow to be a patriarch in his own right (Genesis 21:8-21). Ishmael went on to have twelve sons (Genesis 25:12-18); it's believed that the Arabs of today are, in part, descended from him.
Thirteen years later, God again reiterated His promise to Abram, changing his name to Abraham ("father of many") and giving him circumcision as a mark that he and his descendants worship God alone (Genesis 17). God also promises that Sarah (nee Sarai) will bear a son who would fulfill this promise, although Ishmael would be great as well. That day, Abraham circumcised Ishmael and all the men of the household.
For some reason, Lot still felt it was a good idea to live in Sodom. He understood the evil the people did there, but it's possible his wife was the deciding factor. Finally, the sins of both Sodom and Gomorrah reached a breaking point. After negotiating with the pre-incarnate Christ, Abraham was convinced that Lot is the only righteous man in the area and God was justified in destroying the cities. God sent angels to rescue Lot and his family. In a stunningly horrific display of Middle Eastern hospitality, Lot offered his daughters to the city men who had come to rape the angels. The family escaped unharmed and ran for the hills. It's theorized that a violent earthquake shot bitumen deposits out of a local fault line. The petroleum caught on fire and rained down on the cities. Molten minerals apparently flew through the air, engulfing Lot's wife in a pillar of salt. Horrified by the destruction of their home and fearful for their future, Lot's daughters responded by getting their father drunk and having sex with him. They both gave birth to sons, thus ensuring their own survival (Genesis 18:16—19:28). Unfortunately, they also gave birth to the Moabites and the Ammonites who gave Israel a lot of grief later on.
Then follows the account of Abraham and King Abimelech in the Negev. Again, Abraham feared that he would be killed so that the reigning king could take Sarah as his own. And, again, Abraham told the half-truth that Sarah was his sister. God protected Sarah and warned Abimelech, and all was restored (Genesis 20).
A year after God circumcised Abraham, Sarah gave birth to a son, Isaac (Genesis 21:1-7). Sarah had Hagar and Ishmael exiled permanently. Abraham and Abimelech made a truce, and Abraham gained legal custody of the well he had dug at Beersheba in the middle of the Negev (Genesis 21:22-34).
The story of the sacrifice of Isaac is one that makes many struggle (Genesis 22). In the end, it is just a test of Abraham, to see if he trusted God even with the life of the son he had to wait 100 years for. Over 2000 years later, a rich young ruler had a similar experience when Jesus told him to give up all his possessions (Matthew 19:16-30). Unlike the young ruler, Abraham marched Isaac to the designated spot with no fear of loss. God had promised him Isaac was to be his heir, and Abraham believed Him. Of course, at the last minute, God provided a substitute ram. Despite future millennia of Abraham's descendants rebelling against God, it was this one man's faithfulness that ensured Jesus would come from his line. Soon after their return, Abraham learned that his middle brother had fathered several sons, including Bethuel who had a daughter named Rebekah. Abraham sent his servant to Bethuel's family to find a wife for Isaac, and Bethuel returned with Rebekah.
Sometime between Isaac's almost-sacrifice and his marriage to Rebekah, Sarah died at the age of 127. To bury her, Abraham legally bought a field which contained a cave ideal for internment (Genesis 23). Later, Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah, and Jacob would all be buried here.
After Sarah's death, Abraham took a concubine, Keturah. (A concubine was like a wife whose sons could not inherit position or property from their father.) She gave birth to six sons. Abraham outfitted them, and Ishmael, with what they needed, then made sure they settled far from Isaac so there wouldn't be any problems. Abraham died at 175 years old and was buried by Isaac and Ishmael with Sarah (Genesis 25:1-11).
The story of Abraham is one of faith. We don't like it when God takes a week to answer our prayers — Abraham was 100 years old when his son and heir was born. He travelled from Baghdad to Turkey to Jerusalem to Egypt and back with several stays in the Negev. For the longest time, he had no son and no homeland, and the only land he officially owned was one well and one field with a grave. But, as Hebrews 11:13-16 says:
These [Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Isaac's son Jacob] all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
The same promise is made to us in Philippians 3:13-14, and if we take Abraham as our example of faith, we will reach it.
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