What is so interesting about the story of Abraham and the near-sacrifice of his son is that on many other occasions Abraham argued with his God and reasoned with Him. For instance, when God was en route to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham argues at length with Him and persuades God to spare the towns if He can find ten good men within them. This sort of occurrence is entirely absent from the Qu'ran, where at one point Abraham concedes "I have no power to get aught on thy behalf from God"; but in Genesis, Abraham's God does not command him, but is rather his companion.

The exception, of course, is when God tells him to sacrifice "your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love". Abraham's doubts, if he has any, are not recorded; he simply sets about the task at hand. But what we know of Abraham's willingness to argue with God ought to make us doubt the usual interpretation of this, that it was simply a test of Abraham's faith and capacity to sacrifice everything for God.

One interpretation hence suggests that this story has another meaning: Abraham is confidently demonstrating that God will keep His side of their covenant. It is of course entirely unreasonable for God to ask for the sacrifice of Isaac, a man made in His own image and told he would inherit the Promised Land; and so Abraham went along, being entirely truthful when he said to his son, whilst preparing the sacrifice, that God would provide a lamb for it. Seen this way, the story more aptly illustrates a faith in God's reasonableness, not his demand for obedience. And don't forget that Isaac means "he laughs", perhaps for more reason than one.


The contemporaries of Abraham

For simplicity's sake, I have referred to Abram/Abraham as Abraham and Sarai/Sarah as Sarah.

Abraham’s relatives

  • Abraham’s ancestry

    Abraham’s father was Terah. If you read the Bible's genealogical records literally, then until Abraham was 46 years old, every one of his ancestors, back to Noah, was alive. Going backwards from Terah, they were Nahor, Serug, Reu, Peleg, Eber, Shelah, Arphaxad, Shem and Noah.

    Terah had at least two wives. He died in Haran.

  • Abraham’s siblings

    Abraham had a half-sister, Sarah, whose father was Terah. She died in Hebron in Canaan. Abraham also had two brothers, Nahor and Haran.

    • Haran

      Haran had a son, Lot, and two daughters, Milcah and Iscah.

      • Lot was close to Abraham, and they travelled together in the beginning of Abraham’s sojourn in the promised land. Lot had two daughters, and later two sons, Moab and Ben-Ammi, by his two daughters.

      • Milcah married her uncle Nahor.

      Haran died in Ur before Abraham had even left permanently. Haran may have been visiting from the city of Haran, which may have been named after him.

    • Nahor

      Nahor married his niece, Milcah. Together, they had eight sons: Uz, Buz, Kemuel, Kesed, Hazo, Pildash, Jidlaph and Bethuel.

      • Kemuel was the father of Aram.

      • Bethuel was the father of Rebekah, who later married her relative, Isaac. Rebekah’s brother was named Laban.

      Nahor also took a concubine, Reumah, who bore him four sons: Tebah, Gaham, Tahash and Maacah.

  • Abraham’s family

    Abraham’s wife was his half-sister, Sarah. While he was still married to Sarah, Abraham took Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, as a concubine. After Hagar was sent away with Ishmael, and Sarah died, Abraham took Keturah as a concubine.

    Abraham’s first son was Ishmael; his mother was Hagar. Ishmael had twelve sons: Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah. Ishmael also had a daughter, Mahalath, who married her cousin Esau.

    Abraham’s second son was Isaac; his mother was Sarah. Isaac married his cousin’s daughter, Rebekah. Rebekah bore Isaac two sons: Esau and Jacob.

    Abraham had six sons by Keturah: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah. Jokshan had two sons: Sheba and Dedan. Midian had five sons: Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida and Eldaah.

Members of Abraham’s household

Apparently Abraham passed through Damascus on his way to Canaan, and it is probable he acquired any number of servants there, including Eliezer, whom it seems Abraham was fond of (he was set to inherit Abraham’s estate).

Perhaps while the Hebrews were briefly in Egypt, Sarah acquired a maidservant, Hagar, who later became one of Abraham’s wives.

At the time that Abraham rescued Lot, he had 318 trained men who were born in his household (meaning many more women, children and untrained men), all before he even fathered any offspring.

When Rebekah came to be Isaac’s wife, she brought with her her nurse and her maids.

Nations in the promised land

When Abraham first entered Canaan, it was inhabited by Canaanites. When Abraham returned from Egypt, the Perizzites were living in the promised land alongside the Canaanites. On the other side of the Jordan river was the city of Sodom.

After Abraham parted company with Lot, he moved to Hebron and allied himself with Mamre and his brothers, Eschol and Aner. Across the Jordan a confederacy of city-states arose, consisting of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admar, Zeboiim and Zoar (which was also called Bela). The confederacy had been subject to Elam, a city-state that was allied with Shinar, Ellasar and Goiim. When the confederacy rebelled against Elam, the alliance reasserted itself, as well as conquering the Rephaites, the Zuzites, the Emites, the Horites, the Amalekites and the Amorites. After Abraham had conquered the alliance war party, he was blessed by the king of the city-state of Salem (which was later called Jerusalem).

Also in the land at this time were the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.

After the cities of the Jordan plain were destroyed, Abraham moved into the Negev, and whilst there had some dealings with the inhabitants of Gerar.

After Isaac was born, Abraham is seen living in harmony with the Philistines, and after Sarah died, Abraham is at peace with the Hittites.

{E2 Dictionary of Biblical People}

(a' bruh ham) HEBREW: ABRAHAM
"father of a multitude"

The first great patriarch of the nation of Israel, Abraham is also revered as the epitome of human faith in the will of God by Christians and Muslims. Indeed, Abraham's very name, though of disputed linguistic origin, has been taken to mean "father of a multitude" (Genesis 17:5). His story in Genesis, which seems to be a compilation from three separate and independent original sources, explains how and why the clan of Abraham made its way to Palestine from the Tigris-Euphrates basin, or Mesopotamia.

Yet this towering figure is frankly portrayed in the Old Testament as a flawed, contradictory human being whose personal struggle is a profound and often surprising spiritual drama. Sometimes impatient and deceitful, Abraham comes only slowly to full realization of the true nature of the Lord's revelations and promises to him and to his descendants.

Abraham, originally known as Abram ("exalted father"), was probably born some 4,000 years ago in the famous Babylonian city known as Ur of the Chaldeans, which was situated in what is now Iraq. A direct descendant of Noah's son Shem, he was a wealthy man, the head of a seminomadic clan that lived by herding small flocks and by seasonal farming. Perhaps because of an invasion of Ur by the Amorites, Abram's father Terah decided to move his family to Canaan (Genesis 11:31). They went as far as Haran, a prosperous town 500 miles away from Ur is what is now southeastern Turkey, and settled there. The two cities may have enjoyed a close relationship, for the inhabitants of both worshiped Sin, a moon god. As the years passed, one great void remained in Abram's prosperous, pastoral life. His remarkably beautiful wife and paternal half sister Sarai (Sarah) "was barren; she had no child" (Genesis 11:30).

Abram was given his first test of faith at the age of 75, when God appeared to him and promised that he would become the father of a great nation, but only if he left his homeland and most of his relations behind to strike out for the alien region of Canaan, some 400 miles to the south. "I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse," said the Lord; "and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves" (Genesis 12:3).

Evidently, Abram's faith at this point was extraordinarily strong, for he immediately gathered up his household and left the settlement of his father and other kinsmen. Sarai joined her husband on this challenging journey, as did his brother's son Lot, but the travels and travails of their household had only begun. Wandering through the foreign land of Canaan, Abram may have wondered how it could possibly become the property of his unborn progeny. The area was already well-settled - the Bible mentions ten separate peoples who lived there. But once again, God appeared and explicitly stated, "To your descendants I will give this land" (Genesis 12:7). Abram paused to camp in the region at least twice and set up altars to God: near the oak of Moreh at Shechem and also on a mountain to the east of Bethel. These acts were certainly significant in a country dedicated to the worship of the pagan god Baal.

As time passed, however, and Abram remained childless and found himself still surrounded in the Promised Land by the pagan Canaanites, it seemed that his faith in God's pledge began to waver. For when a severe famine swept through Canaan, he did not wait for the Lord to take care of him and his family. Instead, he immediately pulled up stakes and led his household down into fertile, flourishing Egypt in search of food.

Then Abram revealed still another puzzling aspect of his character. Afraid that he would be killed by some Egyptian eager to seize his beautiful wife, he claimed that Sarai was his unmarried sister and did not object when she was taken into the Egyptian Pharaoh's household. The grateful monarch repaid Abram for this gift with "sheep, oxen, he-asses, manservants, maidservants, she-asses, and camels" (Genesis 12:16). Not until God ravished the land with severe plagues, which were considered in ancient times to be divine punishment for disobedience or sin, did the unsuspecting ruler discover the truth about Sarai. Appalled, he summoned Abram and cried, "What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? . . . take her, and be gone" (Genesis 12:18-19). Pharaoh swiftly restored Sarai to her husband and encouraged the entire family to return to Canaan.

The story of Abram's reprehensible deception is doubly significant. For one thing, it is another indication that the patriarch was not yet ready to trust completely in the divine promise, which certainly implied that God would ensure his safety, even from foreigners who might be struck by Sarai's beauty. For another, the Lord's response proved that he would forever stand by his chosen servant, even when Abram showed himself to be a fallible human being who had to be rescued from a foolish predicament he had created for himself.

Meanwhile, despite these distractions, Abram and Lot had acquired so much cattle that the pasturage back in the hills of Bethel was no longer sufficient for them to share by the time they returned to Canaan. When fighting broke out between their herdsmen, Abram generously offered to cede to his nephew whichever area of Canaan he chose. "Is not the whole land before you?" he asked. "Separate yourself from me. If you take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left" (Genesis 13:9). The younger man quickly opted for the best possible site, the extremely fertile Jordan valley, described in Genesis as "well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt" (Genesis 13:10). Lot removed his household to a city known as Sodom, which was infamous for the degeneracy of its inhabitants.

In this incident, God's chosen one not only demonstrated the benevolence of a clan patriarch toward a younger kinsman, he also parceled out territory with the authority of someone who confidently believed that his descendants would someday inherit all of the land that was still heavily populated by Canaanites. By contrast, Lot is shown in a disagreeably selfish light, probably to compare this ancestor of the Ammonites and Moabites unfavorably with his uncle, the ancestor of the Israelites.

Perhaps in response to this demonstration of faith, God appeared and specifically repeated the promised, even urging Abram to "Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you" (Genesis 13:17). For the first time it is made clear that Canaan will be given directly to Abram during his lifetime, not just to his descendants some time in the future. Moreover, God expanded his earlier promise to say that the still childless Abram would father descendants as innumerable "as the dust of the earth; so that is one can count the dust of the earth, your descendants also can be counted" (Genesis 13:16).

Obeying the divine commandment to familiarize himself with the territory, Abram left his household throughout the area and then decided to set up his tent in Hebron, beside the oak trees at a place called Mamre, later described as belonging to an Amorite named Mamre. The site of these oaks assumed great historical significance for Judaism, for the altar that the patriarch built there became an important sanctuary for the Jews' traditional rememberance of the man who later became known as Abraham.

Sometime after the move to Mamre, circumstances forced Abram to go into battle, the only time this man of peace is shown taking the role of military hero. Four powerful kings from the East joined forces to attack and plunder Sodom, its sister city Gomorrah, and three other Dead Sea settlements, carrying Lot and his household into captivity. Assembling a force of 318 of his own retainers, Abram chased after the interlopers and put them to rout north of Damascus. He not only rescued his nephew and the other captives but was also able to retrieve the valuable booty seized by the four royal invaders.

Upon his return to Canaan, Abram was ritually blessed by Melchizedek, the king of Salem, an early name for Jerusalem, and "priest of God Most High" (Genesis 14:18) - in this case, the Canaanite deity El. In addition, the grateful king of Sodom offered to let Abram keep the spoils taken from the city, but he replied, "I have sworn to the Lord God Most High, maker of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or a sandal-thong or anything that is yours, lest you should say, 'I have made Abram rich'" (Genesis 14:22-23). In using the phrase "Lord God Most High," Abram was referring not to El but to the Lord.

In other words, it seems that Abram continued to trust fully in God's protection at that point. Soon afterward, however, he was questioning the Lord as to why he and Sarai were still childless, even though ten years had passed since the divine commandment to move to Canaan. "Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them," the Lord replied. "So shall your descendants be" (Genesis 15:5). Abram fell into a deep sleep, and God revealed even more of the future, explaining that his chosen people would be held captive in Egypt for 400 years, then be freed at last to return to the land promised to them. But he also confided that Abram himself would not suffer: "As you yourself, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age" (Genesis 15:15). When Abram awoke, the Lord for the first time revealed the actual extent of the land of promise, which would stretch "from the river of Egypt (the brook of Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula) to the great river, the river Euphrates" (Genesis 15:18).

Astonishingly, Abram must now have become too impatient to believe this latest affirmation of the promise and decided to take matters into his own hands. At Sarai's suggestion, he took her Egyptian maid Hagar as a concubine in order to produce an heir. The son of this liaison was named Ishmael.

At this point, the biblical narrative flashes forward 13 years. When Abram was 99, God appeared and once more repeated his promise of land and descendants. As token of this binding covenant, he changed Abram's name to Abraham, evidently expanding the meaning of the original name from "exalted father" to "father of a multitude." Sarai became Sarah, both words meaning "princess." When the Lord also explicitly pledged that a son would be born to Sarah, Abraham literally fell down laughing at the very idea. "Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old?" he asked. "Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?" (Genesis 17:17) Unmoved, God explained that the boy would be born within the year and should be named Isaac, meaning "he laughs."

God also revealed a new ritual requirement for Abraham and all of his promised male descendants: "You shall be circumcised . . . (as) a sign of the convenant between me and you" (Genesis 17:11). Abraham thereupon circumcised himself and then performed the same operation on 13-year-old Ishmael and all of the males in his household. In the future, the ceremony producing this irreversible sign of membership in the Israelite community of the covenant was to take place as soon as a male infant was eight days old. Down to the present, the Jewish circumcision rite or birth continues to include the phrase, "entry into the covenant of Abraham our father."

Sometime thereafter, Abraham was resting from the noontime heat in the cool shade of his tent when three strangers suddenly appeared in front of him. As eastern hospitality required, he rushed to welcome them, hastily ordering a small feast to be prepared, including a freshly killed calf. After these heavenly visitors sat down and ate beneath the oaks of Mamre, the Lord revealed his identity by repeating his vow that Sarah would give birth by spring. Listening from inside the tent, she laughed out loud, as her husband had done, saying, "Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?" "Is anything too hard for the Lord?" her visitor countered. Terrified, Sarah denied that she had laughed, but God replied, "No, but you did laugh" (Genesis 18:13-14,15). For all of its homely and comic touches, this announcement of Isaac's birth was taken by Christian artists of the Middle Ages to prefigure the angelic Annunciation of the birth of Jesus in the New Testament.

On this day, it turns out, God had paused on his way to more troubling business, having come to judge Sodom and Gomorrah because of the outcry against their wickedness. When he does Abraham the great honor of sharing this information, his chosen servant, in a moving scene, shows himself worthy to be the father of nations by daring to intercede for these foreigners. "Wilt thou indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked?" he asks (Genesis 18:23). Abraham wins the Lord's agreement to spare the cities if 50 "righteous" can be found, then continues to bargain the number down to a mere ten such people, daring to call down God's wrath on himself in order to save others.

For religious scholars, this determined intercession is profoundly significant, and not simply because Abraham might have come close to winning an argument with the Lord. Rather, he introduced an important new concept: the possibility that sinners could be saved from destruction by the mere existence of even a small number of God-fearing people. Moreover, by trying to rescue the two non-Israelite cities, he was fulfilling God's earlier promise that he would be a blessing to other nations.

But the depraved citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah proved too wicked even for Abraham's intervention. The angels of the Lord could not find even ten righteous persons. Early the next morning, when the patriarch arose and went out to gaze down on the valley of the Jordan where his brother's son had chosen to settle, "the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace" (Genesis 19:28). In response to Abraham's plea the day before, however, God had warned Lot and his family. Though Lot's wife and sons-in-law perished in the holocaust, Lot and his two daughters survived, eventually settling elsewhere in the eastern highlands.

Not long afterward, Abraham interceded with God again, but this time after he himself had put an innocent man in jeopardy. For some reason that is not given in the Bible, he moved his household from Mamre to Gerar in the Negeb region. There, he introduced Sarah as his sister to the local monarch, King Abimelech. As in the similar episode that took place earlier in Egypt, the king brought Sarah into his house but did not sleep with her. Nevertheless, in a terrifying dream, the Lord warned Abimelech, "Behold, you are a dead man, because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a man's wife" (Genesis 20:3).

The next morning, the stunned king, like the Egyptian Pharaoh before him, summoned Abraham for an explanation. "I did it," he said, "because I thought, 'There is no fear of God at all in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife'" (Genesis 20:11). The pagan Abimelech forthwith returned Sarah to her husband, presented him with slaves and cattle and 1,000 pieces of silver, then assured Abraham that he could settle nearby wherever he chose. Meanwhile, God had punished all of the women in the royal household with infertility. In response to Abraham's prayers, however, they were restored to health and the king was forgiven.

Despite this episode, the pagan ruler and the ancestor of Israel became firm allies. When Abimelech's servants took sole possession of a well that had been dug by members of Abraham's household, the two leaders made a famous covenant of peace, swearing an oath at the spot. The well was named Beer-sheba, perhaps meaning "well of the oath." The patriarch then planted a tamarisk tree at the site and worshiped God, thus implying that the area would someday belong to his descendants.

When Abraham reached the age of 100, the son he and Sarah had been craving since the divine promise a quarter century earlier was at last born. As they had been directed, the ecstatic old couple named him Isaac, and he was circumcised by his father on his eighth day of life. Now the household was filled with the laughter of joy, not disbelief. As Sarah put it, "God had made laughter for me; every one who hears will laugh over me" (Genesis 21:6).

Unfortunately, this happiness was eventually marred by domestic strife. Watching the teenaged Ishmael at play with her cherished toddler son, Sarah became jealous and demanded that Abraham cast out the older boy and his slave mother. Abraham was loath to banish his elder son, but God told him to do as Sarah had asked, saying "through Isaac shall your descendants be named" (Genesis 21:12).

Early one morning, the patriarch gave Hagar and Ishmael a small ration of bread and water and reluctantly sent them away. Wandering in the desert near Beer-sheba, Hagar became desperate when these provisions gave out and decided to abandon her son beneath a bush, unable to watch as he slowly died of thirt. God, hearing the suffering of Ishmael's terrified cries, called down to show Hagar a well and urged her to take care of the boy, reassuring her that Ishmael would grow up to father a great nation.

This compelling story has been variously interpreted. Some commentators have argued that Ishmael was not suitable to be the instrument of God's promise to Abraham because he was the son of a foreigner and slave. Yet, according to the custom of the day, the boy would have been considered to be Sarah's legal son. Rather, the real obstacle to Ishmael's becoming the heir to the promise was probably the lack of faith that led to his birth. In deciding to use Hagar as a surrogate mother, both Abraham and Sarah had not been willing to wait until the Lord saw fit to present them with a child of their own.

The torments suffered by Ishmael and his mother would pale beside the excruciating ordeal Abraham would be forced to endure once Isaac alone was his heir. One day, without warning, the man who had so often doubted the divine promise, who had waited a quarter century for a son by his wife, was ordered to kill the boy in a blood sacrifice on the mountains of Moriah and to burn his body as an offering to the Lord.

"Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love" (Genesis 22:2), said God, at the beginning of the story that not only tested Abraham's faith but has confused and troubled many Jews and Christians since. What did Abraham, who had argued with God to save the lives of sinners in Sodom, think about this apparently cruel command? The Bible is silent on the subject. The aged father is shown getting up in the morning and cutting wood, as he would for an ordinary animal sacrifice. Following God's instructions, he saddled an ass and rode with Isaac and two young retainers until they reached a designated spot on the third day of their mysterious journey.

Leaving the servants to guard the ass, father and son walked farther on, to the place God had chosen for the sacrifice. Isaac carried the wood, Abraham the fire and the knife. When the boy wondered aloud why they had not brought a lamb with them, his father responded with the memorable and heartbreaking answer, "God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son" (Genesis 22:8).

Still without revealing his feelings, Abraham erected an altar at the forlorn site and piled the wood upon it. Then he tied Isaac's limbs together, as he would those of any other sacrificial animal, and laid him upon the pyre. Not until he grasped the knife and prepared to slay his son did God intervene. "Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him," the Lord called out, "for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me" (Genesis 22:12). Nearby was a ram, caught by the horns in a thicket, which Abraham could now offer as an acceptable sacrifice. Then, for the last and most momentous time, God affirmed his promise that this chosen sevant would be blessed, would become the ancestor of a posterity beyond numbering, and would be the instrument through which all of the world's peoples would be blessed because he obeyed the terrible command to sacrifice his son.

Thus, Abraham's unforgettable act of obediance becomes the climax of his life story. Remarkably, although neither father nor son speaks openly about his inner feelings, the story is an intensely poignant human drama, revealing that each feels infinite trust in the other and also in the will of God.

To some experts in the history of ancient religions, the story seems intended to symbolize the Israelites' repudiation of the child sacrifice ritually practiced by some of their pagan neighbors. This interpretation is not universally accepted, however. In mainstream Judaism, the patriarch's acceptance of God's will is considered a model for the faithful as well as a symbol of Jewish martyrdom. To some early Christian theologians, Abraham's obedience throughout this trial was thought to anticipate the submission of Jesus to his death on the cross.

After this dramatic climax, little more is heard from Abraham, aside from a few particulars about the settling of his earthly affairs. Upon Sarah's death in Hebron at the age of 127, he purchased a family burial cave there, along with an adjacent field, for 400 silver shekels. In this instance, he was legally purchasing a portion of the land that would eventually come to him, and he became owner rather than heir to the promise. The site, known as the Cave of Machpelah, became the final resting place of Abraham and the other patriarchs, as well, and it is revered even today by Jews, Christians, and Muslims as a sacred spot.

Three years after Sarah's death, Abraham bestirred himself to find an appropriate wife for Isaac, who was by then 40 years old. Surrounded by the many alien cultures of Canaan, Abraham was determined that his son marry someone from among his own people. On the one hand, he did not want his heir to be seduced by the pagan religion of the Canaanites, whose fertility rites would become a source of continuing temptation to the incautious Israelites over the centuries. On the other, he did not want his son to have to leave the Promised Land to find a suitable wife and then settle down with her relatives elsewhere. Therefore, he commissioned the trusted old servant who managed his household to travel back to Haran and select the best candidate from among the eligible women in the kinship network there. The majordomo chose Rebekah, who was the young granddaughter of one of the patriarch's own brothers and who fulfilled the requirement of a bride from within the clan that was so important in those times.

Once this responsibility was discharged, Abraham married a woman named Keturah, but he took special care that their children and the sons of his concubines did not become a threat to Isaac's inheritance. These other offspring were well provided for and sent off to live in lands to the east. When Abraham died at the age of 175, Isaac and Ishmael together laid him to rest beside Sarah in the family burial cave. (Eventually, according to tradition, Isaac and Rebekah, their son, Jacob, his first wife, Leah, and possibly Joseph were also interred there.)

References to Abraham are scattered throughout the Old Testament. During the great national crisis of exile in Babylon, he came to epitomize the hope of the expatriates to return one day to their native land and reestablish their nation. In Psalm 105, for example, Israel's national identity is emphatically rooted in God's selection of Abraham as his special servant and in the covenant established between them. "He (the Lord) is mindful of his covenant for ever," writes the psalmist, "of the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant which he made with Abraham" (Psalm 105:8-9).

The promise is specifically repeated to his son Isaac, notably in Genesis 26:3: "Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you, and will bless you: for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath which I swore to Abraham your father." God also repeats the promise to Jacob, and both Joseph and Moses expect Israel to benefit from it.

After the death of Jesus, his followers reinterpreted the mission of Abraham, who is mentioned 72 times in the New Testament, more frequently than any other Old Testament figure except Moses. For the apostle Paul, the life of the patriarch proves that faith is more important to salvation than Mosaic Law, for Abraham believed in God before he was ordered to undergo the ritual of circumcision. Paul believed that the coming of Jesus made it possible to recapture the pristine faith of Abraham. In other words, God does not require that people follow the laws and rites of religion in order to be considered righteous. In Paul's view, therefore, Abraham is actually the father of all those who have faith in God, not just the father of the nation and religion of Israel. By the same token, Abraham's selection as God's chosen one should be regarded as extending to all others who also have faith in the Lord. Those who have faith are each and every one God's chosen.

From a slightly different perspective, Paul also argues that Gentiles who believe in God receive his blessing through Jesus, who is genealogically the seed of Abraham. "Now the promises were made to Abraham and his offspring," he wrote. "It does not say, 'And to offsprings,' referring to many; but, referring to one, 'And to your offspring,' which is Christ" (Galations 3:16). In yet another New Testament interpretation, the author of the letter to the Hebrews argues that Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac proves that the dead will be resurrected by God: "He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom it was said, 'Through Isaac shall your descendants be named.' He considered that God was able to raise men even from the dead" (Hebrews 11:17-19). From the very same incident, however, James draws a different moral, arguing that Abraham's conduct on the mountain of Moriah proves that faith in God must be demonstrated by "works" or action. "Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren?" he writes. "Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works" (James 2:20-22).

The well-known phrase "Abraham's bosom" is mentioned only once in the New Testament, when Luke, telling the story of the poor man known as Lazarus, writes that he "died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom" (Luke 16:22). The use of this image to refer to heavenly rest for the righteous comes from rabbinic tradition.

{E2 Dictionary of Biblical People}

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