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Abraham, the first patriarch in the book of Genesis, is a figure of memory, legend, and faith.

Abraham and the Binding of Ishmael
Abraham and the Binding of Ishmael

Abraham is remembered in the Bible as the father of faith and the ancestor of the Israelites (Gen 12-24; Rom 4:1-12). According to Genesis, God called him from his home in Mesopotamia to journey to the promised land, where God promised to multiply Abraham’s offspring and make them into a great people and a blessing to the nations. The three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—call Abraham their father. The importance of Abraham to these religions raises many questions, both theological and historical.

Was Abraham the first monotheist?

The book of Joshua says that when God called Abraham from Mesopotamia, Abraham’s family was polytheistic: they “served other gods” (Josh 24:2). But this topic doesn’t come up in the stories about Abraham in Genesis. God calls Abraham and enters into a covenant with him and his family (Gen 12, Gen 15, Gen 17). This is an exclusive relationship between one god and a particular family. In the ancient world, these features belong to the category of family religion, in which the family god is often called “the god of the father.” In addition to the customs of family religion, ancient people also worshiped the gods of tribe, city, or state. In the stories of Abraham, however, the god of the father is also “God Most High, maker of heaven and earth” (Gen 14:19). In other words, the Abraham story shows the merger of family and state religion, yielding the worship of a single god. From the biblical perspective, Abraham was the first monotheist.

Did Abraham actually exist?

Abraham certainly exists in biblical memory. The twelve tribes of Israel recalled him as their first patriarch. But tribal memories in the ancient world were not always historically accurate—they were a mixture of history, legend, and myth. Such traditional stories reshape the past so that it remains relevant for the present. The stories of Abraham are not immune to these cultural changes. As a result, we do not know whether Abraham actually existed. But even if he did, many (or most) of the details in the Abraham stories are legendary and not historical. Some details that do seem to retain ancient historical memories are the importance of upper Mesopotamia (the region of Haran) as the ancestral homeland and the worship of a deity named El (“God”). Both of these features are important in Amorite tribal cultures of the early second millennium B.C.E. So it seems that ancient details are occasionally preserved in the stories. But the stories are not about a half-forgotten Amorite tribal figure; they are about the biblical Abraham, who is the patriarch of Israel and the chosen one of God.

The biblical Abraham may not have actually existed, but his memory certainly does in the three great monotheistic religions. In classical Judaism, interpreters elaborated on the biblical stories, making Abraham a dedicated monotheist even before God chose him. By doing so, these interpreters clarified why God chose Abraham: because he was already the first monotheist! In early Christianity, the apostle Paul drew on the Abraham story to affirm that faith is independent of works, because Abraham trusted in God before he was commanded to circumcise himself and his sons (Rom 4:1-12). In Islam, Abraham’s oldest son, Ishmael—the ancestor of the Arabs—inherits the blessing, rather than the younger son, Isaac. God commands Abraham to sacrifice Ishmael, and after the beloved son is saved, Abraham and Ishmael journey to Arabia and build the holy shrine (the Kaaba) in Mecca.

  • Ronald Hendel

    Ronald Hendel is the Norma and Sam Dabby Professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book is The Book of Genesis: A Biography (Princeton University Press, 2012).