He is one of the most fascinating characters of the Bible, some would argue (me included) one of the most fascinating characters of history! Yet how much do we really know about this man who was called ‘friend of God’ and ‘Father of the faithful’
A native of a place lost in the sands of antiquity, a place that today is just a pile of ruins in the desert, yet in his time it was one of the sprawling metropolis’ that existed at the dawn of civilisation!
Genesis chapter 10 tells us that four cities were founded by the people of the time, Babel, Erech, Accad and Calnah. Of these four we know the location of Babel and Accad for sure, what is interesting is that within sight of the two we know of there have been others found. one of which was called Ur!
Abram (as he was called then) was from Ur of the Chaldees (no surprises there as the Bible told us that) but who was he really? Was he some wandering nomad who accidentally stepped onto the pages of history? Is there some real archaeological evidence for him existing, or is he just a ‘concept’ to explain why a marauding tribe aggressively settled in Canaan around 1400BC?
Sadly there is no ‘stone tablet’ telling us of a man called Abraham or even Abram, so we can’t answer the question that way, but there is some fascinating evidence that can point us in the right direction!
Mesopotamia, believed to be the cradle of all civilisations! It was here, sometime around 3,500 years before Christ that the first form of writing occurred ! the first things written down weren’t law codes or stories but were everyday transactions of business! Traders selling and buying their wares.
The first forms of writing were on clay tablets. They were easy to make as you just cut the clay out of the ground and let the sun dry them when you’d finished what you needed to record. Kiln firing using double kilns reaching 1,000 degrees were known to have existed since the dawn of civilisation (archaeologists have dated the first to 6,000 BC but this would predate the flood which while possible really throws a spanner in the works of the idea that man ‘wasn’t too bright then’ as evolutionists would have us believe!
By Abram’s time they were smelting Copper and Bronze and well on the way to beginning to work with glass. In fact Ur of the chaldees was known to have a working street system.
In Abram’s time the city was actually a port on the banks of the Euphrates river . Sadly today it is well and truly inland as the courses of the rivers have changed over the centuries. It was known as a major trading city.
Ur had good growing land and was ideally suited to farming and animal husbandry. They traded on that and imported such precious metals as Gold, Silver Copper and later Bronze.
Abram’s family were shepherds, actually, they weren’t just shepherds but they were wealthy farmers!
At that time coins had not been invented and were not until around 1000BC (it was the Greeks who invented them as a means of paying the Mercenaries in their armies).
In Ur of the Chaldees, (and Mesopotamia) wealth was measured by how many cattle or sheep you owned, or how much land you had under cultivation (naturally you had slaves or servants to do the work!) and later we find out just how much Abram had!
Ur was a polytheistic society, the chief god was ‘Nanna’ the moon god (the sun was seen as oppressive as you couldn’t stay long in the full glare of the sun, but when the moon was out it was nice and cool)
Just prior to Abram showing up in the Biblical narrative we have the story of Nimrod, followed by the Tower of Babel. Interestingly Josephus tells us that Nimrod was in total rebellion against God all his life and some early Jewish commentators say that Genesis 10 verse 9 should read ‘A mighty warrior in opposition to the Lord’ (Philo claims this).
Josephus also says that Nimrod, as King of Babel ordered the building of the tower to prevent God from ever being able to send a flood again. He was striving to preserve the human race in rebellion to God
This was the world which Abram grew up in. he was a shepherd; he was also a trader and knew how to read and write. His family were wealthy and they had not just a few servants but Abram could field an army of 318 men trained for war (servants0 and allies to attack and defeat the kings of the Chaldeans and liberate his nephew Lot!
The Biblical account has Shem living 600 years after the flood, (Some even believe that he was the mythical Melchizidek whom Abram met after the Battle with the Kings!). Did Abram know him as a boy? Was it from Shem that he learned the stories of the flood? Or was it from the records that were written down before he was born!
We’ll probably only find that answer out when we get to ask him in heaven, but one thing is clear. Abram knew the stories and probably had a written record of them.
One evidence of such records being kept is the epic of Gilgamesh . The story of one man’s struggle against the gods, and his search for eternal life. Specifically it gives another story of the flood of Noah and how Gilgamesh survived. The record we have (in the British Museum) is a Babylonian translation (7th Century BC
One thing is clear. Abram was a businessman, not only that but he was a fabulously wealthy man for his time (318 servants he could trust his life to Genesis 14 tells us!). he had the means and as a direct descendant of Shem he had access to the family records, both the oral and written records.
Ur of the Chaldees was a polytheistic society, yet Abram was a monotheist! If he was merely a product of his time then how did he become a monotheist? Or did he know from the start that there is only one God!
In Mesopotamia there was no division between the sacred and the secular. Religion brought structure to life. things happened because of the will of the ‘gods’ yet Abram knew that there was only one!
It’s clear that the knowledge of there being only one God came to Abram originally from his family and either from first hand accounts or from written records. Not only that but he was used to God speaking to him!
One of the great things of the Bible is that there is so much that it doesn’t tell us, it’s almost as if the Bible presupposes some things that we will just ‘know’ because we ‘know the man.’ Or in other words, the argument from silence!
The Bible is silent about a lot of Abram’s life, I mean we don’t hear anything about him until he’s seventy years old. He lived for about another hundred years yet all we have of his life would probably fit into a couple of months. Yet what we have in those few episodes is priceless!
Walk with God
Abram had a walk with God that most of us would envy, he walked and talked with God ‘as if with a friend’ in fact he was called ‘friend of God’
It was a friendship that was built in the obscurity of everyday living. The times when there was just Abram and God.
In Genesis 14, after the Battle with The Kings of ‘Shinar’ Abram meets with a strange character called Melchizidek. Strange because we are told absolutely nothing about him, yet later in the Bible he becomes an important figure and Jesus is called ‘a high priest in the order of Melchizidek
There is some speculation as to whom it was Abram really met. Josephus thinks that it was Melchizidek who provisioned Abram’s men for the march and Battle with the Chaldeans . Many believe that he is the ‘pre incarnate Christ’ but apart from the fact the Bible doesn’t give us his ancestry there is no real evidence either way (apart from the argument made by the writer to the Hebrews showing the supremacy of the priesthood of Melchizidek!).
Some Bible commentators see the exchange between Abram and the King of Sodom (who tried to reward Abram) as that of a Sovereign (the King of Sodom) seeking to gain Abram’s allegiance, but Abram refused as it would negate any vows he’d made to Yahweh that might have been witnessed by Melchizidek
God’s Covenant with Abram
We often hear about the covenant God made with Abram and how Abram ‘believed God and it was considered to him righteousness!’ But did you know that God entered into the covenant with Abram long before it talks about Abram’s faith!
There are six covenants in the scriptures and each one of them is slightly different.
1. Adam (The Adamic covenant)
2. Noah (The Noahic covenant)
3. Abram (The Abrahamic covenant)
4. Moses (the Mosaic covenant)
5. David (The Davidic covenant)
6. Jesus (The new covenant)
In each case it is God who instigates the covenant, he is the prime mover in the whole affair! Genesis 15 gives us the story of what was going on at the time.
It was not too long after the Battle with the Babylonian Kings and Abram is possibly thinking of the future and the fact that he has no physical heir. All his worldly goods are to pass to his chief servant (Eliezer of Damascus) but he wasn’t ready for God’s reply. ‘No Abram, I’m going to give you an heir, a son of your own!’ then he enacts the covenant. He tells Abram exactly what to do
The covenant and the means of entering into it is consistent with what we know of ancient covenants in Mesopotamia at the time. Also the fact that Abram was willing to stick with the Mesopotamian customs of the time
Cutting the animals in half was a way of saying ‘If I break this covenant then let the same happen to me’ but what is amazing is that it is only God who walks between the carcases. The walking between the carcases was the act of making the solemn promise, it was God made the promise, Abram was not required to! In normal circumstances both parties would pass through the carcases and make a mutual promise, but it was Yahweh (God) who was making the promise, he was just informing Abram of what was going to happen!
Changing the Name
Half way through his life Abram went through a transformation. You could call it a mid life crisis with a difference. Normally when someone goes through a mid life crisis it’s of their making and them searching for identity, but this one wasn’t started by the man going through the crisis. This was instigated by God himself!
God had already promised Abram that he would have a son who would be his heir, Abram was about 75 years old at this time that God made the promise! Twenty four years later Abram was still in the same position, yes he’d had Ishmael who was now years old. Yet he knew that Ishmael was not the way that God would fulfil the promise! And he pleaded with God that Ishmael might be part of the covenant.
Names in Middle Eastern culture are really important as they describe the person. One example is Ishmael himself was named by the Angel of the Lord because he wanted to get the point across to Hagar that God really did hear her prayer, it means ‘God hears’
‘Abram’ means ‘Father of many’ but ‘Abraham’ means ‘Father of a Multitude, or Nations’ Yet Abraham was now ninety nine years old and still no son, was God playing a cruel joke?
So, who was he?
Here we’ve looked at a few things about Abram/Abraham to try to work out whom he was really.
One thing is clear, Abram was not just some lonely shepherd who decided to take a really long walk into our history books. He was instead a major leader in the ancient world. Just reading the Biblical account shows him as being on a equal footing with Kings of the cities.
He was also a man who knew his God and was willing to stand ‘against the crowd’
He made mistakes in his life, we can read about those as well in the Biblical account but we also read that he rose above them and went on to become the ‘father of the faithful’
He was a man who felt at home in the courts of Kings, yet humble enough to entertain strangers as they walked through his camp (Genesis 18). He was a man we can learn lots from.
Abram was also a creature of his own culture. In Genesis 12 we see that Abram actually isn’t the head of the family at that time, his Father Terah was! This is typical of Middle Eastern culture that the Patriarch of the family was always the oldest male and even if you were married with kids you were not the head of your family until your Father had left this world! Only then did you become the head of your family!
We often think that it was Abram ‘giving God a hand’ in the episode with Hagar but in fact all that was happening was what was possibly in their original marriage contract. In many Mesopotamian marriage contracts there was a clause in that stipulated that if the wife proved to be barren then she was duty bound to provide a means of producing offspring, even if it meant giving one of her servants to serve as a surrogate. Once the heir was provided then the servant was to revert to the role of a servant, but the heir would be the child of the wife . God stepped in and told him that it was not the plan.
With Sarah, Abraham was to have only the on child, Isaac (meaning laughter). He was the child of the promise, but after Sarah died, he married again. He married Keturah and had six children.
So who was he? Well part of the answer is he was a child of his culture, a man of his own times. Without doubt, he was a historical character, probably a chieftain of his own tribe; some even say that he was probably one of the richest men alive at the time. He was literate and it is possible that his family had written records from none other that Shem and maybe even Noah himself. What is interesting is that in the Dead Sea scrolls there was a scroll called ‘tales of the patriarchs’ that adds a lot more detail into Abraham’s accounts than the Bible. They are probably 1st or 2nd century BC stories but they do shed some light on the time and the idea that the people of that time certainly accepted that he was a real person..
Civilisations of the Ancient World: Edited by Professor Dominic Rathbone: Thames and Hudson: 2009: pge 95
Wikipedia ‘Ur of the Chaldees’
Gifts of the Jews, Thomas Cahill: Doubleday: 1998: pge 37
Civilisations of the Ancient World: IBID: pge 92
Hebrews chapter 7
Josephus: Antiquities; chp 10; 3 He also suggests in places that Melchizidek could be Shem.
New Bible Commentary Revised: Inter Varsity Press: Third Edition: 1970: pge 93
Genesis 15 verse 2
New Bible Commentary Revised: Inter Varsity Press: Third Edition: 1970: pge 94
Genesis 17 verse 18 Abraham said ‘Oh that Ishmael might live before thee’
Civilizations of the Ancient World IBID Professor Rathbone brings out the concept that the Romans lived by this principle but they picked it up off the Greeks who in turn took it from earlier civilizations.
New Bible Commentary Revised: IBID: pge 96
The Dead Sea Scrolls; Micheal Wise, Martin Abegg and Edward Cook: Hodder and Staughton: 1996: pges 74-9 The tales of the Patriarchs is told as if it was Abraham telling the story.
Read more articles by Lawrence Hebb or search for articles on the same topic or others.