Abraham is the earliest biblical character who is delineated clearly enough to be correlated, to a limited extent, within world history. His homeland on the Fertile Crescent (possibly at Haran, at least in Gen. 12.1–5) and movements southeast toward Chaldean Ur (Gen. 11.31), then west to Canaan and Egypt, correspond to known Amorite migratory and commercial routes. He may have been a caravan merchant, though the Bible presents him only as a pastoralist. This vague relation of Abraham to history does not exclude debate as to how much of his biography might have been worked up for vividness or as retrojection of a later tribal unity. More insistent claims of historicity presume contemporaneity with Hammurapi (despite the discredited equation of the latter with Amraphel [Gen 14.1]). An even earlier date was put forward on the basis of some premature interpretations of Sodom at Ebla. The name Abram (= Abiram, as Abner = Abiner), used in Genesis from 11.27 to 17.5, is there ritually changed to Abraham, a normal dialectal variant, though explained in relation to ʾab‐hāmôn, “father of many.”
A certain unity in the whole Abraham saga (Gen. 11.27–25.11) involves a rich variety of peoples and individuals conditioning his activity; twenty‐two separate episodes are discernible (see L. Hicks, Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible 1.16). Eleven are attributed to the Yahwist (J): base around Haran, Genesis 11.28–30; call westward, 12.1–3; Canaan pause, 12.4–9; separation from Lot, 13.1–13; promise involving Mamre, 13.14–18; progeny like stars, covenant‐incubation, 15.1–6, 7–24; Hagar, 16; the three at Mamre, 18.1–15; vain plea for Sodom, 18.16–33; birth of Isaac, 21.1–7; and old age, 24.1–25.11. Five other episodes suggest the Elohist (E): parts of the narrative of the covenant in chapter 15, especially verses 13–16; Gerar, 20; Ishmael expelled, 21.6–21; Abimelech 21.22–34; and the call to sacrifice Isaac, 22 (See Aqedah). The Priestly (P) additions include: journey to Canaan, parts of Genesis 11–12; birth of Ishmael, 16.1–16; covenant of El‐Shaddai and circumcision, 17; birth of Isaac, 21.1–3; Machpelah, 23; death, 25.7–11; and, less clearly, the unique episode concerning Melchizedek (chap. 14).
The three strands respectively see Abraham as “father of all nations” (J); “model of faith” (E; see Rom. 4.9; Heb. 11.8); and “guarantor of Israel's survival” (P, in the context of exile). The covenant with Abraham is also a blessing for all the peoples of the earth (Gen. 12.3; 18.18) and especially a bond of religious unity with his other descendants, the Ishmaelites (Arabs: Gen. 21.21; 25.12). Abraham's progress from (Ur or) Haran through Canaan into Egypt involves numerous theophanies (Gen. 12.6, Shechem; 12.8, Bethel; 13.18, Hebron; 21.33, Beer‐sheba; 22.14, Moriah), justifying his eventual takeover of the whole area (Gen. 13.14–17) or, more sweepingly, the takeover by “his god” (El) of the cult of the local El, not clearly seen as either identical or different.
In Deuteronomy, Abraham is associated with Isaac and Jacob (Deut. 1.8; 6.10); the three are often generalized as “your fathers” (9.18; 11.9; NRSV: “your ancestors”), especially as those with whom God made a covenant (7.12; 8.18), a covenant still in force (5.3). The Deuteronomic history recalls Abraham in Joshua 24.2–3; 1 Kings 18.36; 2 Kings 13.23; but it is surprising how seldom he is mentioned there, as well as in the Psalms (only 47.9; 105.6, 9, 42) and the preexilic prophets (only Mic. 7.20, probably a late addition). The poorer classes of Judah who never were sent into exile justified their inheritance as the promise to Abraham (Ezek. 33.24), but the stronger group of returnees attributed their own liberation to God's faithfulness to Abraham “my friend” (Isa. 41.8, prominent in James 2.23 and in Muslim tradition, notably as the name of Hebron, al‐Halil). Abraham is often mentioned in the book of Jubilees and sometimes in other pseudepigrapha.
Abraham is second only to Moses among New Testament mentions of biblical heroes. Sometimes this is in a slightly belittling sense, when he is claimed as father of the impious (Matt. 3.9; John 8.39). More often the truly Abrahamic descent of the Jews is acknowledged as a stimulus for them to live up to their heritage (Luke 19.9; 16.24; Heb. 6.13). This true but qualified descent from Abraham forms a key factor in Paul's anguished efforts to determine how and in what sense Christianity can claim the promises made to Israel (Rom. 4.1, 13; Gal. 3.7; 4.22). Ultimately, as father of all believers (Gal. 3.7), Abraham is to be looked to as a source of unity and harmony rather than dissent among Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
See also Abraham's Bosom;