Abraham - the Bible story
Abraham, father of his people
Abram/Abraham, husband of Sarah, was a wealthy trader and herdsman. His God was a universal creative force with whom Abraham had a special relationship
Abram searches for a homeland
Abram was convinced he had a message from God telling him to leave his native country and set out on a long journey. God would guide him and show him where to go.
So he set out with his brother Lot and his wife Sarai, with their flocks and all the possessions the camels could carry.
Eventually they arrived in Canaan, and there God came to him and told him that the land he now stood on would be his, and his descendants'.
Abram built an altar of thanksgiving, then when the pasture for his flocks ran out, he moved on to the hill-country east of Bethel, journeying by stages toward the Negev.
But the land was barren and stricken by a famine, so Abram kept on heading south to Egypt.
Read Genesis 12:1-5
Abram tricks Pharaoh
As he travelled nearer and nearer this great civilization of the ancient world, there was one thing that worried him. His wife Sarai was very beautiful, and Abram knew men would look at her, want her, and maybe think of killing him so they could have her. So he asked Sarai to pretend she was his sister.
This would induce the Egyptians to court Abram and win his favour, so they might stand a chance with Sarai. He hit the jackpot. Pharaoh's courtiers saw Sarai's voluptuous beauty and told the Pharaoh (possibly Ramesses II, see image at right) about her. Without further ado Pharaoh took Sarai as a wife. Abram did well out of it. He was given sheep, cattle, donkeys, camels, and male and female slaves.
But then Pharaoh began to be plagued by bad luck, and he found out about the trick Abram had played on him. He was quite justifiably annoyed, and gave Sarai back to Abram - but allowed him to keep the gifts, which made Abram quite rich.
Abram then headed north, up towards the Negev, and then by stages to Bethel. He and his brother Lot now had too large a flock of animals to feed together, so they split up, Abram settling near Hebron in Canaan while Lot lived among the cities of the plain, pitching his tent near Sodom.
God's Covenant with Abram
At this stage, God made a covenant with Abram: that his descendants should have the land from the river of Egypt to the river Euphrates, and the territory in between.
The problem was that Abram had no children, so how was he to have descendants? Sarai thought she had a solution. She would give her slave girl Hagar to Abram to be a surrogate mother, bearing a son who would be raised by Sarai and Abram as their heir.
Things went well at first. Hagar became pregnant, but Sarai became jealous and the two women quarrelled. There was a power struggle, and Sarai won - Hagar was ejected into the harsh desert to die. God had other plans. He sent an angel to save Hagar, and she eventually bore Abram's son, who was called Ishmael.
At about this time God renewed the covenant made with Abram, making certain changes. Henceforth Abram was to be called Abraham, and Sarai Sarah. Every male in the tribe was to have the skin of his foreskin removed. Sarah would bear a son, even though she was well past child-bearing age. This son would be Abraham's heir, even though Ishmael would also inherit and have many heirs. That very day, Abraham circumcised all the men of the tribe.
Read Genesis 16:1-6
Angels at Sodom and Gomorrah
Sarah knew nothing of all this, but one day three visitors approached the tent of Abraham. They were not ordinary travellers, but angels or spirits of some kind (see Angels in the Bible for more on this).
Abraham treated them with great hospitality, but when Sarah heard them talking about her future, and how she would bear a son, she laughed to herself, since she had long since stopped menstruating and Abraham was a very old man. The angels heard her laughter, and were offended. 'Is anything impossible for God?' they asked.
The angels/spirits continued on their way, down towards Sodom and Gomorrah. They were going to destroy these cities, they told Abraham - who was understandably concerned, since his brother Lot lived there.
The angels went to Lot's house, and he offered them hospitality. But the men of the city had seen them, and wanted to have sexual intercourse with them. Lot and the angels were able to repel them, but the angels warned Lot to quit the city immediately, since they were about to destroy it. 'Flee for your lives' they said. 'Do not look back or stop anywhere. Flee to the hills.'
Lot could not budge his sons-in-law, but he gathered up his wife and daughters and spirited them out of the city. They family dashed away just as fire and brimstone began to rain on the city. But Lot's wife looked back, and she turned into a pillar of salt.
Sarah and Abraham have a son
Then God allowed Sarah to conceive, and she had a son. When it came time for her son to be weaned, she became angry and jealous of Hagar's son Ishmael, and had Hagar expelled from the tribe. Abraham allowed this to happen, even though he knew that his son Ishmael had virtually no chance of survival in the desert. Again God intervened, and sent an angel to show Hagar where to find water so that she and Ishmael survived.
Abraham's second son Isaac grew up, and was Abraham's pride and joy. But it seems almost as if, after all the unworthy things that Abraham had done, that God was not sure He had made the right choice, for God now set a test for Abraham. He asked for the life of Abraham's son Isaac.
The sacrifice of a favoured child may have been a way of showing loyalty to one's God. See Human sacrifice in the Bible
Read Genesis 21:1-7
The sacrifice of Isaac
Abraham agreed. He rose early the next morning, saddled his donkey, and set off with his son Isaac towards the distant mountain where the deed must be done.
'Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?' asked Isaac. 'God will provide one, my son' replied Abraham. Or is it 'God will provide one: my son'?
When they reached the mountain, Abraham and Isaac together built an altar and placed the wood they had brought on top of it. Then Abraham bound Isaac with a rope and lay him upon the altar. He raised the knife to kill his son, but at the last moment he heard a voice telling him to stop. 'Now I know you have not withheld your only son from me', said a voice.
Then Abraham saw a ram nearby. It was caught in a bush, and Abraham pulled it out and sacrificed it instead. He had passed the crucial test. (See Bible Archaeology for information on the ram in the thicket.)
Abraham returned to Sarah with Isaac.
Read Genesis 22:1-13
Later, he arranged a marriage for Isaac. When Sarah died he bought a burial cave for her, where he himself was later buried.
What is not talked about much is the information in Genesis 25: Abraham had another wife, Keturah, who had six sons. These young men were less favoured than Isaac. They received gifts from Abraham, but were sent away to the east. Isaac received all Abraham's property when Abraham joined Sarah in their joint tomb at Machpelah.
Read Genesis 25:1-8