Real Bible Studies: Abraham (Introduction)

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Within the pages of the Old Testament, few figures loom as large as Abraham, claimed by both Jews and Muslims as an ancestor. Given Judaism’s role in the founding of early Christianity, modern Christians also cite Abraham as an important figure, if not a direct ancestor, since those of European descent are more likely to be descendants of Ham. It is with Abraham YHWH is said to have made a covenant that guided the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt and into the promised land. To this day, those who claim descent from Abraham continue to spill each others blood over who has the more valid claim to his legacy. Such a important figure can’t be summed up in a simple blog post, and for that reason, this article serves as merely an introduction.

Abraham’s story progresses directly from that of the flood, with Genesis 11 recounting the lineage from Noah’s son Shem, father of the Semitic people, or Shemites, down to Terah, father of Abram, who’ll become Abraham after his covenant with YHWH. With the lineage down to Terah, we once again have a curious timeline, showing people with unusually long life spans, though not as long as those from the previous listing from Adam to Noah. For instance, Shem is said to have lived five hundred years, whereas Nahor, Terah’s father, only lived one hundred and nine years. Their ages at the birth of their children, however, are not as wildly exaggerated, usually between twenty-nine and thirty-five, except in the case of Shem, Terah, and Abram.

One is left to wonder, though, if Shem had his son at age one hundred and lived to five hundred, why doesn’t the bible tell us anything more about him other than recounting his lineage. From Arphaxad, Shem’s son, down to Terah, is a span of two hundred and ninety years, and since Arphaxad is said to have lived four hundred and three years, he should have still been alive at the time of Abram’s birth, but we hear no more about him, nor any of the intervening generations, with equally long lives. The lineages in the old testament, particularly those leading to Abraham, and of his descendants, are extremely important, for later, the authors of Matthew and Luke cite them in making their case that Jesus is from the house of David.

Once the lineage from Shem down to Terah has been recounted, we’re told that Terah, at age seventy, had three sons, Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Haran became the father of Lot, then died, so Terah takes Lot in. Abram marries Sarai, and it’s stated at this point that she’s unable to conceive a child. Following the death of Haran, Terah takes Abram, Sarai, and Lot from the land of the Chaldeans, and heads toward Canaan, but apparently decides to settle in Harran, which appears to still be somewhere in Babylon. Terah is said to have died at age two hundred and five, or one hundred and thirty-five years after Abram’s birth, and, since Abraham is said to have died at age one hundred seventy-five, he only outlived his father by forty years, and yet, Terah is never again mentioned in the story of Abram. Genesis 12 seems to imply that Abram and Lot’s adventures commence after Terah’s death, making it difficult to reconcile his disappearance, though, in all fairness, it’s not explicitly stated Terah has died by the time Abram sets out for Egypt. Perhaps the author simply wanted to give us some closure with Terah, by mentioning his death, so that we don’t keep worrying about him.

Genesis 12 leads us to the call of Abram, as it’s described in the New International Version. YHWH tells Abram that his descendants will inherit the land of Canaan, and directs Abram to go and take a look. Lot tags along with Abram and Sarai, which once again raises the question of what’s become of his grandfather, Terah, since he should still be alive at that point and bears the responsibility of taking care of Lot, although, it can be assumed Lot is grown and probably no longer a ward of his grandfather. We’re then told Abram roams around Canaan, stopping at least once to build an altar, as he heads toward Egypt.

Once Abram gets to Egypt, however, he starts behaving rather oddly. Fearing he’ll be killed for having an attractive wife, he instructs Sarai to say she’s his sister, which, in turn, prompts Pharaoh to take her into his palace, with the intention of having her as his wife. Later, in Genesis 26, this story is repeated, this time with Isaac and Rebekah, only in the kingdom of the Philistines, and with a different outcome, which suggests the Philistine king was a bit more cautious than Pharaoh in claiming an attractive wife. In this instance, YHWH inflicts serious punishments on Pharaoh, prompting him to send Abram packing with his wife and all his property. It’s not clear exactly how one should respond to this episode, since it doesn’t shed a particularly glowing light on Abram. Other than inflicting considerable stress on Pharaoh’s household for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent, not much comes of it. YHWH doesn’t seem to hold it against Abram, as we’re not told of any consequences Abram suffers as a result.

After leaving Egypt, the author of Genesis reminds us that Lot is still hanging around with his uncle Abram, and that both have acquired much property, livestock, and servants, more than can be supported by the land. Not wanting to get into a quarrel, Abram suggests they separate, so Abram heads back into Canaan, while Lot takes up residence near Sodom, where nothing bad could possibly happen. The author does point out that this is before god destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, providing us with a bit of a teaser for what’s to come. While Abram is still hanging out in Canaan, YHWH once again takes the opportunity to promise that one day Abram’s descendants will inherit the land, and we’re not told how enthusiastic Abram is about an event that won’t happen until long after he’s gone. Abram responds by setting up shop in Hebron.

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