Updated: Aug 17
“Getting to Know You”
by: Shmuel ben Shlomi
As those famous lyrics from the musical Broadway hit The King and I stated, we will be getting to know this man named Avraham.
What we garner here in Part Two of this Three Part essay on the life of Avraham will deal strictly with what we can glean from the scant few verses and chapters from the Torah as given by HaShem to Moshe on Mount Sinai some 800 to 1000 years after Avraham walked on planet Earth.
While there may not be a ton of biographical information in the Torah on this man we can piece together who he was and what he was like from the places he lived, the customs and traditions of his time, who he had contact and relationships with, how he responded and reacted to the people and events that surrounded him and his dealings with the blessings and hardships he faced, as well as what others in the Torah who knew him had to say about him.
In his beginning:
We learn from Genesis 11:26 that when Terah was 70 years old a son was born to him that was named Avram (Sumerian for Father). Terah also have two previous sons, Nahor and Haran.
From information in the Bible itself and from extra-biblical Sumerian sources we can place the date of Avraham’s birth to around 2123 BCE or 4,000 years ago. [NOTE: All dates given are approximate].
He was born in the city of Ur in Shinar (the Biblical name for Shumer/Sumeria). Ur was the thriving epicenter of the Sumerian culture and civilization at the time with its magnificent ziggurat at its center of worship, religion, commerce and government. The Annunaki god Nanna (called Sin by the Akkadians) was the chief god of this important city/state (Sumeria consisted of several city/states with Ur being the largest at the time of Avraham’s birth). At its peak Ur likely had at least several 100,000 inhabitants, perhaps more. Therefore, Avraham was raised as an urbanite, not in a nomadic tribal clan. In fact, his father Terah, as stated in Part One was likely a member of the priestly clan serving in the Nanna/Sin ziggurat in some capacity, perhaps even as a type of high priest. We know from the words of Joshua 24:2 that Terah was a worshipper of idols, therefore Avraham was raised in an environment of idol worshippers. One of the tasks of the priests of the Annunaki gods was to make and sell statues of the gods to the people. We will get into that area of the story in Part Three.
Being of the royal-priestly bloodline Avraham would have enjoyed a rich urban life, been educated by the finest teachers of his day in the ways of Sumer and the Annunaki as his father would have prepared him to eventually take his place at some future time as a priest of Nanna/Sin.
We also know from Genesis that Avraham was a faithful man to the customs, traditions and mores of his time and place. He was a man of his own time and not raised in a vacuum. He would have been engrossed in the practices of the peoples he grew up around. Influenced by the sites and sounds around him. And, he remained faithful to his father, staying with him through thick and thin up to the time of Terah’s death, being that faithful and obedient son until age 75.
When the political and religious climate began changing in Ur to the point that it was too dangerous to continue living there (circa 2096 BCE), Terah packed up his family, including the now adult Avraham along with Avraham’s wife, Terah’s other sons and family members and moved them northwest to the city/state of Haran (Harran) the secondary worship and service center for the Annunaki god Nanna/Sin. The original destination was to be Canaan but because of Terah’s priestly duties they ended up staying in Haran until the death of Terah at age 205 years.
"Go West Young Man"
Haran was another thriving active area in the Sumerian empire at this time in Avraham’s life. Situated on several trade routes that connected the West to the East, including the famous Silk Road, Avraham would have been exposed to even more cultural differences in the human family. It was in Haran, after the death of his father, that YHVH made Himself known to Avraham and called him to leave Haran (circa 2048 BCE) and move westerly “to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
Why did HaShem specifically choose Avraham and call him out? What was it about this man that made him unique in the eyes of Adonai Eloheynu so that the Eternal One would call him out with such a promise as this?: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” We are not told the reason(s) why but looking over the entire life of Avraham we may be able to understand it, piece by piece and bit by bit.
We already mentioned the faithfulness of Avraham so that could be foundational reason number one. HaShem was looking for a person of faith, one who remained faithful to his commitments even if he didn’t always agree with the circumstances surrounding that commitment - as we will learn concerning Avraham’s abhorrence over the idea of worshipping and serving idols made with hands and false gods represented by the Annunaki. Even though raised from birth in that kind of environment he did not succumb to its temptations.
It is also obvious from his faithfulness that he was an insightful man. One able to see through the oblique and find the obvious flaws in the ways men looked at the divine. This man, surrounded by idols, false gods; being baptized into becoming a priest of Nanna-Sin, somehow through the strength of his character, the wisdom and intelligence of his thought processes; perhaps while staring out night after night for decades at the vast stars of the universe came to realize that all that is was not the product of these pitiful flesh and blood Annunaki persons or the clay vessels that represented them. This universe and all it contained could not have come into being without a One central and personal Creator — a One G-d and the only G-d. For the first time since the creation of Adam and Chavah and the ancient patriarch Noach here arose a person that finally got it. There is only One Creator, One Cosmic Source, One Eternal Being and it was this Person - not thing - that was responsible for all that is, was and ever shall be. Such a man as this HaShem could not ignore so He called to Avraham, was heard by Avraham and was obeyed by Avraham — “Avram went forth as YHVH had commanded him,.… Avram was 75-years old when he left Haran.” (Genesis 12:4)
We have to now understand what this meant for Avraham. For 75 years, from the time of his birth, he lived in the great fortified city of Ur, the main center of life in the first post-Deluge civilization. Then he moved to Haran, smaller yes, but still a major urban area for trade, commerce, financial matters and more. Avraham was an urbanite. What did he know of a rural nomadic life? Picture yourself leaving your well established home in Washington D.C. for the city lights of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The street and nightlife wouldn’t change much. The elite class, to which you belong, would be very similar, so not a lot would have changed. However, now imagine packing up your family in the SUV and trekking across the country to resettle in Bingham, Nebraska. Where? Exactly! Now make that same trip nearly 4,000 years ago on donkeys and camels across unfamiliar terrain, unknown enemies, with all new and strange languages, customs and mores. And all this at age 75. This was what would seem to us an insurmountable task and many of us would have likely told HaShem “thanks but no thanks.” But HaShem did not call us He called Avraham and he packed up and left being obedient to the One True G-d he had come to apprehend on a level never before known by a human being. Not until Moshe Rabbenu, some 1,000 years later would such a man come on the scene.
Avraham kept moving west until he reached the land of Canaan. When he arrived he set up camp. At this time Avraham, being a wealthy man already with family, servants and slaves in tow numbering at least 300 men of fighting age (ages 20 to 50), along with their wives and children and all the livestock of donkeys, camels, sheep and goats. This entourage was quite formable and would have matched and even exceeded the towns and villages on the Eastern edge of Canaan. We are not told how long this trek from Haran to the outskirts of Canaan took but the logistics alone would have been unimaginable. In order to feed and shelter this large of a group Avraham likely used the known trade routes between Haran and the Levant. However, once having arrived in Canaan HaShem appeared to Avraham and said, “I will assign this land to your offspring.” Avraham’s first go-to response to this was to build an altar there to YHVH.
Once again showing his insight and native intelligence Avraham then moves his now nomadic tribal clan up into the hill country east of Bethel and situated his people and his herds nicely between Bethel and Ai, giving him and his tribe ample protection and early warning of any impending danger be it by human or animal. At some point, we do not know how long after living in the hill country, he moves toward the Negev pitching his tents strategically between Canaan and Mizraim (Egypt).
What at first may have seemed like a bad move turned out to be quite fortuitous for this new Abrahamic Hebrew tribe. Soon after moving near the Negev a famine broke out in Canaan so Avraham moved his clan into the territory of nearby Egypt which was not affected by the famine brought on by a severe drought (circa 2047 BCE). When you have well over 300 souls along with massive herds to feed and water you go wherever that can be accomplished. In this case it was Egypt.
There was a custom in those days that will seem barbaric and strange for us in the 21st Century CE. When someone would move into an urbanite area in the Levant and Egypt the women of the caravans would be in danger of being taken from their husbands with the husband being killed. The women would then become the property of the taker. In most cases this was only done by the powerful elite of the city, town or nation. Avraham, now fully educated into the practices and customs of his new home, having lived there for several decades now, knew of this custom and upon entering Egypt let it be known that his wife was not his wife but his sister, thereby saving his life. To us today this seems quite gruesome. Why didn’t Avraham simply fight them off and protect his wife? Truth is he would have been killed, his wife still taken from him and the promise of HaShem to him unfulfilled. So, using his great intelligence he made this plot with his wife and she agreed to it. And, in reality he didn’t lie to the Pharaoh who took his wife for she was truly his sister as well as his wife. He trusted HaShem for a good outcome to this situation. And, again, his character intact HaShem showed his faithfulness to Avraham and Sarah and saved them both from the hands of a potential enemy and threat.
Forced out of Egypt by Pharaoh after the incident and judgment of HaShem upon the king, Avraham moved back toward the Negev and the hill country surrounding it (circa 2042 BCE). It was probably during this time in Egypt that Hagar was purchased to be the servant of Sarah. Or, perhaps Hagar was given to her by the Pharaoh when Sarah was in his harem to look after her needs.
Whenever we are dealing with history we must understand that the geographical map was much different 4,000 years ago than what it is today. During the time of Avraham, while the Negev had some desert like areas it was much wetter than today, had lush green grasslands and vegetation with small oasis even in the desert sections that stretched from the borders of Egypt through Southern Canaan and even southeast into Arabia.
As time passed the herds and peoples of both Avraham and Lot began to increase to the point that the current land they inhabited could no longer maintain them both and the herdsmen of Avraham and Lot began fighting amongst themselves for grazing rights. A decision had to be made. Keep the families together and quite possibly have it end up in a tribal civil war or split them up between Avraham’s immediate family, servants and herds and those of Lot’s. The decision was made to split up. It is here we find another character trait of Avraham that HaShem may have found worthy of His attention and choosing of this man.
One would think that since Avraham was the elder of the clan, the tribal chief, it would be his choice as to what land he would take and where to pitch his tents and the younger Lot would simply concede and move elsewhere. And, you would be correct in that assumption, However, Avraham was not the kind of man to lord it over anyone, not even when it was his legal right and custom of the land to do so. Avraham gives the option to his younger nephew Lot to choose. Whatever he chose then Avraham would take the leavings.
“Let there be no strife between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north I will go south; and if you go south I will go north.” (Genesis 13:8-9)
Lot made his choice to move to the valley lands near Sodom and Gomorrah (a city/state well populated and surrounded by lush fields fed by an inland freshwater lake - later called The Dead or Salt Sea). Avraham remained in the hill country surrounding said valley and around the Negev.
The first thing that happens after Lot leaves with his clan is an appearance by HaShem to Avraham with this covenant promise to him:
“Raise your eyes and look out from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west, for I give all the land you see to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. Get up, walk about the land, through the length and its breadth, for I give it to you.” (Genesis 13:14-17)
Avraham lost nothing in giving Lot the valley grasslands below because all the land was his to met out to whomever he chose. All the land was his from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates River, from the Golan to the borders of Egypt. And, even though Avraham was yet to physically realize the truth of it in faith he thought and acted on the promise as if it had already come into fruition. HaShem, in an eternal covenant gave it to Avraham and his offspring forever, regardless who may or may not be on it over the eons of time. The deed of property rights is Avraham’s and his offspring’s forever. It pays to be magnanimous and humble as Avraham proved when giving Lot first choice. At some point after this event in his life Avraham moved his tents and clan and began surveying the land promised to him and his offspring by first dwelling at the terebinths of Mamre (a famous ancient oak grove) in Hebron (known as Kiriath-arba [the city of Arba] in Avraham’s time). It is here that later on when Avraham is old and Sarah aged 99 that HaShem and the two messengers arrive on their way to destroy the city/states of Sodom and Gomorrah.
About one year later (circa 2041 BCE) Avraham is forced to commit to a war against his old homeland of Sumer when its King named Amraphel, along with King Arioch of Ellasar (a city/state of Assyria), King Chedorlaomer of Elam (a Persian city/state) and King Tidal of Goiim (probably of Hittite origin) waged battle against the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and its surrounding cities and villages. All these cities paid tribute to these other kings of the east with most of it landing in the coffers of King Chedorlaomer of Persia. After thirteen years of tribute the vassal kings decided it was time to say no and thus Chedorlaomer brought all the power and weight of the kings of the east to bear on the cities located in the Valley of Siddim, also the home of Lot and his family. At some point after leaving his uncle Avraham, Lot gave up the pastoral life and moved within the city gates of Sodom while continuing his herd grazing outside the city limits in the surrounding fields. But he gave up the nomadic tents for more of the urban life he had once known and apparently missed in Ur and Haran. I suppose he felt more secure surrounded by walls than by nature. The man was replete with bad decision making.
When the kings of the east attacked Sodom and Gomorrah and its surrounding enclaves they took Lot, his family and all he possessed into captivity. This required Avraham to amass all his men of fighting age numbering 318 and went up against a much greater fighting force as those forces were sleeping after a long battle and egregious march back to their eastern lands. Taking advantage of the dark and the enemies weariness Avraham attacked them driving them to panic and defeating them. Lot was found along with his family and saved by his uncle.
The way in which Avraham may have surprised and defeated the kings of the east is well known within our Jewish tradition and folklore and will be addressed in Part Three of this series.
Now we will get another glimpse into the nature and character of Avraham as he returns those he freed from captivity back to Sodom/Gomorrah along with all the booty he acquired from the battle. Upon his return the kings of the region (notice they did not go directly into battle themselves to free their own people and treasure) came out to greet Avraham and his clan of successful warriors. They offered to give Avraham all the possessions he had won in battle that came from their cities but he refused the offer and gave all that he had won back, both peoples and treasure to the kings of the Valley of Siddim. However, when one particular king came out to greet and bless him Avraham gave to him a tenth of all he had acquired. This king was named Melchizedek of Salem (which would later be called Jerusalem). Melchizedek means king of righteousness, but we know little to nothing of this man except for this short segment in Torah found in Genesis 14:18-20 —
“And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of G-d Most High (El ‘Elyon). He blessed him saying, ‘Blessed be Avram of G-d Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be G-d Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.’ And [Avram] gave him a tenth of everything.”
Who was this king Melchizedek? We know from the the verses above that he was called a priest of El ‘Elyon - G-d Most High. That’s about it. Nothing more in the Jewish bible is mentioned of him except for one verse in Psalms 110:4 where it states when speaking of a future Davidic king, “YHVH has sworn and will not relent, ‘You are a priest forever, a rightful king after the manner of Melchizedek.’” In our tradition as found in the ancient Targumim it stated that Melchizedek was Shem, a son of Noach and progenitor of the Sumerian and Semitic peoples of the regions south and east of Mount Ararat, the landing place of Noach’s ark. So, he was a king of Salem and a priest of the Most High G-d. Apart from that nothing else, except from tradition and legend, is known of him. However, whoever he was, in the mind and eyes of Avraham he was worthy to give a tenth of all he gained in battle and worthy of receiving a blessing from this king. To Avraham he was a person deserving of his respect and humility, another sign and indication as to why HaShem chose Avraham for the eternal covenant promise.
Many years later we find Avraham is now a very old man and without an apparent heir to inherit that very covenantal promise given to him by HaShem so long ago and it is beginning to cause him some apprehension and grief, both from within himself and from his wife Sarah who remains barren. We now see a side of Avraham that until now has not come to light in the Torah. We find him confronting and even interrupting HaShem when He comes on a visit to reiterate that old promise.
“Fear not Avram, I AM a shield to you; your reward shall be very great.” (Genesis 15:1) However, this time Avraham is not just bowing, building an altar and quietly walking away. “O L-RD G-D, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless…since You have granted me no offspring, my [chief] steward will be my heir.” (Genesis 15:2-3)
It was the custom of those days that if a man died without a male heir then all that he possessed that survived him would go to either his next male kin living within his tribe or household, and in the case no male kin had survived when he died then it would all be given into the hand of whoever was the steward of his estate. In Avraham’s case, since Lot no longer was a member of his specific tribe and he had no male heir living that issued from he and Sarah the entire estate would go to his chief steward named Dammesek Eliezer.
Not letting the conversation end on such a sour note HaShem retorts back to Avraham saying, “That one shall not be your heir, none but your own issue shall be your heir.” (Genesis 15:4) Comforted by these words of HaShem Avraham goes outside the tent and gazes at the stars in the night sky and is addressed by Adonai, “Look toward the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them [all]. So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5) The Torah then lets us glimpse into the heart and soul of this humble man — “And because he [Avraham] put his trust in YHVH , He reckoned it to his merit.” (Genesis 15:6)
Yes, Avraham trusted HaShem to fulfill his end of the covenant. But, like so many of us when we trust we want to help make it happen thinking surely HaShem requires me to do some part. True enough, we do have a part to play but that part is almost always revealed by HaShem at the time and place of His choosing. Avraham, just like us, thought he needed to do something apart from just trusting and waiting for the plan to unfold in HaShem’s perfect timing. So, when Sarah suggest that since she cannot have a child with Avraham perhaps a child could be born to her and Avraham through a conception with one of her fertile servant girls, in this case her Egyptian slave woman named Hagar.
To better understand what this is all about we once again need to put aside our current “modern” ideas about relationships and childbearing. In the time of Avraham procreation was seen as a blessing from G-d or the gods depending on the religion. Regardless of the religion or belief system a person followed one idea was universal at the time - the main function of a husband and wife union was to bear children in order to perpetuate the human species and fertile women were seen as blessed by a deity, especially if the majority of her offspring were male (the reasons for this attitude were many and will not be dealt with here) and barren or infertile women were seen as cursed by the deity or at least found less favorable.
So, we can understand a women like Sarah, a person of great wealth and beauty, a member of the Sumerian royal/priestly line of Terah might be feeling now that she has moved past the normal childbearing age and still without a male child to give her husband. As was the custom of the day, however, a surrogate could be obtained to cohabit with the husband by which a child could be born to her as if she had borne it herself. In those days just as the surrogate was about to give birth the barren woman would be placed foot to foot with the surrogate mother and as the child was born it would be immediately handed over to the barren woman even before the cord was cut and placenta had been delivered by the surrogate. Depending on the particular culture prayers, vows or some other type of rituals would ensue passing heirship over from the surrogate to the barren woman who would now bear full responsibility for the child as its true mother. We have something similar today in surrogacy where a woman who cannot have children can hire another woman to either cohabit with her husband or more commonly have his sperm artificially inserted into one of the surrogate’s eggs where they are implanted into the surrogate who will carry the baby full term at which time it is given over to the barren mother and raised as her own child as if she herself had given birth to it. Today it is all pretty cut and dry with a lot of legal documents signed, sealed and delivered well before the fertilized egg in implanted into the surrogates uterine wall. Except for the long list of legal documents and the artificial implantation it was a pretty similar affair 4,000 years ago. Within the Arab bedouin nomadic tribes today throughout the Middle and Near East it still goes on pretty much as it did in Avraham’s day. Within tribal nomadic environments things change very slowly if at all.
This long winded explanation brings us back to Sarah’s plea to her husband Avraham to have sex with her servant the Egyptian Hagar so that she could bring forth a son for her to give to him. Avraham thinking HaShem might need a little help to fulfill the promise given to him agrees and as a result Ishmael, the father of the Arab peoples is born nine months later creating a schism within the family of Avraham that has continued into our very day. So much for thinking G-d needs our unsolicited help. Avraham was a great man, but he was still a human being just like us. He made mistakes. Not that Ishmael was a mistake, no birth is that and HaShem, knowing the end from the beginning in all things was not a bit taken by surprise with this turn of events and had already made a place for Hagar and her son in the world and each side would from that time on play their part in the unfolding of the plan of HaShem for humanity and the Earth.
After Ishmael’s birth 13 years later HaShem visits Avraham and Sarah again to remind them of his covenant with them and this time gives them the actual time that the heir apparent will be born by Sarah in her old age. Many of you already know the Torah story of the day Avraham was sitting by the tent flap trying to stay cool in the heat of the day when he sees three men approach. Recognizing there was something unique and different about these men but not yet quite able to determine what he invites them to stop at his tent, refresh themselves, have something to eat and drink and proceeds to wash their feet. In the hot and arid climate of the Middle East it is customary to allow the feet of visitors to be washed. Since most wear a sandal of some type and the roads and pathways were quite dusty it was and is today in Middle and Near East custom to provide water and to wash the feet of the traveler or visitor to your home. It isn’t so much an act of humility as it is just a show of care and a sign of your hospitality to the visitor(s). So then was this the case for Avraham to the three strangers.
At some point before these three “men” arrive HaShem once again appears to Avraham and reveals to him a new name for Himself. He says, “I AM El Shaddai” (G-d Almighty) After another reiteration and elaboration of the covenant HaShem imparts to Avram his new name Avraham (Semitic for Father of a multitude - many nations). Here in this one verse a new and deeper relationship has been forged between the G-d of Creation and one of His created beings. A relationship that had never been granted before or since to just one man. Then HaShem asks him to do something that may have seemed strange to Avraham but having come all this way with the One True G-d, was not questioned and was obeyed immediately — Circumcision - the cutting off of the foreskin of the penis of all males within the tribe of Avraham (known as Brit Milah). After this initial event which must have been very painful for all the males alive at the time from 99 year old Avraham to his teenage son Ishmael as well as every member of Avraham’s tribe both free and bondmen. After this all males born who are of the offspring of Avraham and Sarah are to be circumcised at the age of 8 days.
The big question many outside of Judaism ask is why circumcision? There are two reasons that have been given down through the centuries by the Jewish sages and rabbis:
One deals with the physical world. This outward sign given at 8 days after birth makes you uniquely a part of the clan of Avraham (both within the Hebrew/Israelite-Judaism and Arab-Islam clan and religion) and all the promises and responsibilities impinged upon those two clans and religions.
Secondly, circumcision is a spiritual or theological sign pinning its purpose on the one who has received it to a higher calling of setting apart the circumcised under a covenant (an agreement) between them and the One True G-d and Creator of all that is. Without this inner commitment by the circumcised the outer sign means little as it pertains to the relationship one has with his Creator. In other words, the outer commitment made by the parents when the infant was only 8 days old (7 days old in Islam) must be self-imposed by the boy when he reaches the state of manhood and becomes responsible for his own actions when he is age 13 (bar mitzvah) for the Jewish male and age 12 to 15 for Islamic males (baaligh). This reveals the importance in a culture of brit “to teach your children to do righteousness and justice” (tzedakah and mishhpat) [Rabbi Eugene Korn], fostering “love among all bearers of the same sign of brit milah.” (Moshe Maimonides).
It is now that I wish for us to take a look at Avraham from the perspective of the Quran (Koran - the Islamic Scripture). To get a fuller and more rounded picture of this man we must see him not only from the eyes of Isaac and all his offspring the Jewish peoples but also from the vantage point of Ishmael and his people who many centuries later would create the second largest religion in the world. We will not be treating the view of Christianity in this essay since it had no real direct ties to Avraham per say. It being a religion that broke those bonds when it completely rejected its Avrahamic/Hebraic roots in 325 CE with the full acceptance of the Nicene Creed under the Roman emperor Constantine.
Called Ibrahim in the Quran, he is seen as the father of all who are righteous and faithful to the One True G-d Muslims call Allah. The teachings of Islam based on the Quran also place Avraham in Ur of Sumer and son of Terah (called Aazar within Islam), an idol worshipper and likely an Akkadian, a Semitic peoples originally from the Arabian Peninsula who eventually settled in Mesopotamia in the third millennium BCE (according to Imam Mufti). Much of the rest of the story of Avraham in the Islamic teachings pretty much coincides with that of the Torah with a few digressions here and there that don’t really change the setting much. Some of these stories of Avraham in the Quran will be mentioned in Part Three of this essay.
The main split between the Torah and the Quran as it pertains to Avraham comes after the birth of Ishmael, followed by the birth of Isaac. As one might expect the emphasis on Ishmael is far greater than that placed on his younger half-brother Isaac with Ishmael pretty much being inserted into the various Isaac narratives replacing the younger as the protagonist. The Quran has Avraham going to the Bakka Valley (now called Mecca) after Ishmael was born and still being nursed. They stayed in that area until Ishmael was aged 17 and it was at this time that Avraham banished Hagar and his son Ishmael with some bread and a skin of water, at the word of Allah and upon the insistence of Sarah. According the the Quran as Avraham was walking away from them:
“Hagar asked, ‘Has God asked you to do so?’
Suddenly, Abraham stopped, turned back and said, ‘Yes!’
Feeling a degree of comfort in this answer, Hagar asked, ‘O Abraham, to whom are you leaving us?’
‘I am leaving you to God’s care,’ Abraham replied.
Hagar submitted to her Lord, ‘I am satisfied to be with God!’” (Saheeh Al-Bukhari)
Once alone with her son and crying to Allah there appeared to Hagar via an visiting angel who said to her:
“Do not be afraid of being neglected,’ the angel said, ‘for this is the House of God which will be built by this boy and his father, and God never neglects his people.” (Saheeh al Bukhari)
The area today is a well named Zamzam that flows into the city of Mecca.
We will look at one other major digression between the Torah (written in 3300 BCE) and the Quran (begun in 610 CE). The Quran states that a short time after leaving his son Ishmael in the area of Bakka he returned and after a joyful reunion Avraham was stricken by a dream that Allah wished him to sacrifice his son Ishmael. The Quran makes an argument that it had to be Ishmael and not Isaac that was required to be sacrificed because the Creator would never ask Avraham to slay his son of the covenant so it must have been Ishmael that was to be killed on the altar. I won’t go into all the potholes into why that is circular thinking at this time since this essay is about the life of Avraham and not who was to be killed so I will just quote the Quran on this subject.
"So We gave him the good news of a forbearing son. And when (his son) was old enough to help in his daily affairs, (Abraham) said: O my dear son, I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you. So look, what think you? He said: O my father! Do that which you are commanded. God willing, you shall find me of the patient." (Quran 37:101-102)
"And when they both submitted (to the command of God), and he (Abraham) laid him (Ishmael) face down upon his forehead (in order to be sacrificed)." (Quran 37:103)
"We called to him: O Abraham: You have indeed fulfilled the vision. Lo! Thus do We reward the good. Lo! That verily was a clear test. And when his God tested Abraham with various commands, and he proved true to each one." He (God) said, indeed I have made you a leader of humanity. He (Abraham) said (requesting of God), ‘and from my progeny…then We redeemed him with a momentous sacrifice.”
The Quran has Avraham meeting up with his son Ishmael several more times after this event including the two of them building a permanent sanctuary for the worship of Allah called a Kaaba, them praying together and making Hajj. The last time they would be together agrees with the Torah — it would be when Ishmael and Isaac come together after many years to bury their father Avraham in the Cave of Machpelah (Me’arat HaMakhpela) in Hebron.
In both these disparate accounts in the life of Avraham there are several points of intersection that are in total agreement. Avraham was a man of great faith and faithfulness in the One True G-d whether you wish to call Him YHVH or Allah. He loved His Creator, served him with all diligence, obeyed Him test after test (ten in all), put HaShem first above all else, even his own comfort and will. He was a man of principal, dignity, vision, insight, intelligence beyond the norm of his day, but again, his most prominent character trait was his faith and faithfulness to HaShem, his family, his clan and himself.
We will not task ourselves with the Akedah (the binding of Isaac for sacrifice on the altar at Mount Moriah) except to highlight and bring into clear focus that foundational trait that made Avraham a unique man of not only his time but all time.
Isaac was the son of promise. The child of Avraham and Sarah promised by HaShem in their very old age making it clear to all that this child was the result of a special covenant promise and act of YHVH. When that promise was made Avraham believed HaShem and it was accounted to his merit. Now, many years later once this child is a grown man YHVH is asking, not ordering, but asking Avraham to take this child of which the entire covenant rests and sacrifice him up in a burnt offering to HaShem. We have no hint of disobedience from Avraham. At this point he isn’t just old, he is very old. He has lived through nine other tests with his Creator and didn’t hesitate, allowing him to not only prove his faithfulness to HaShem but also allowing HaShem to prove His faithfulness to the covenant he made with Avraham. Now Avraham is faced with this new test, he isn’t aware that it will be his final one, but it matters not. His faith in YHVH has fully matured and he is up to the challenge. Torah relates the story this way:
After some time HaShem asks him to “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, who you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (Genesis 22:2)
HaShem wanted to make sure which son He was requesting Avraham to sacrifice. Maybe quietly in his own mind Avraham was wondering this same thing so HaShem leaves no doubt of whom he is speaking by stating it is not only Avraham’s son, it is his favored covenant promised son the one he loves above all others and then names him directly — Isaac!
What does the Torah say Avraham did? Did he bargain with HaShem as he did for those living in Sodom and Gomorrah? Did he remind HaShem of the promise he made concerning this son and all future offspring that would come from him? Did he point out the stars in the sky and the sand on the ground and say - “Hey, remember these? No!
“So early next morning, Avraham saddled his donkey and took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for the burnt offering, and set out for the place of which YHVH had told him.” (Genesis 22:3)
In our Jewish Siddur (Prayer/Service Book) there is a beautiful section in the Shacharit (Morning) prayers we say each day — The Akedah (The Blessing of Isaac). We quote the full section of the Torah that pertains to this sacrifice asked of HaShem to both Avraham and Isaac. The part I find most telling and compelling as it pertains to the character of both these men is the following which is also in the Torah found in (Genesis 22:4-19). Once they had arrived at the designated spot in Moriah Avraham reveals by his words to his servants the faith he had in HaShem to fulfill his covenant promise:
“Avraham said to his servants, ‘You stay here with the donkey, and I and the boy will go to that place. WE (emphasis mine) will prostrate ourselves and return to you.’”
Avraham wasn’t sure what exactly would take place. What he did know was that HaShem always keeps his promises so whether or not Isaac would be slaughtered by his own hand or not, Isaac would be coming back with him alive and well. Why? Because he totally and unequivocally trusted in the character and promise of YHVH.
We also have to take a look at Isaac at this point. Even though Avraham called him a boy or lad in some translations, we know from the passing of the years that at this point in history Isaac is actually a young, full grown man. He is currently living apart from his father in the tent of his mother Sarah situated in Hebron and who had already passed away by this time. He is going up with his father to offer a sacrifice to YHVH, something I am sure they did at his father’s tent in Beer Sheva on more than one occasion. Yet something is different this time. There is no lamb or goat for the sacrifice as they are climbing up Mount Moriah. He is carrying the wood for the fire on his back, his father has the fire and shechitah knife in his hand; so he asks his dad:
“Father,” and Avraham replies, “Here I am my son,” (in the 21st Century we would say something like - “What do you want son?”) Isaac answers back, “Here are the fire and the wood but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Avraham responds with faith and determination, “YHVH Himself will show the lamb for a burnt offering my son.”
You may not get the full gist of the meaning of that in an English translation but the Hebrew leaves little doubt that Isaac fully understood, he was to be that lamb for a burnt offering.
Did he say No!? Did he run away? Did he fight off his father, after all he was younger, stronger, likely bigger and faster than dear ole dad! No he did not. What did he do that showed his faith in YHVH was at least as great as his father’s if not even greater at this moment of his own greatest test of faith? He stood there and helped his father use the available stones on the mountain to make an altar, helped him arrange the wood on the pyre and then allowed his father to bind him tightly with rope, lift him up and be put on that altar. He watched with the great calm that only a true faith in both his father and HaShem can give as he saw his dad lift up his hand that held the shechitah to slaughter him.
When a messenger of YHVH stopped the hand of Avraham in mid-stroke toward the throat of Isaac, I’m sure there was a sigh of relief from them both — after all we are still living in frail human bodies. However, once released from the bonds and hearing the very words of HaShem say, “Do not harm the boy nor do anything to him; for now I know that you are one who fears Me and have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me.” [NOTE: To fear HaShem in the Biblical sense is not one of cringing fright but of great respect and appreciation for the power and might of the Creator of all].
And, as all who are familiar with the story HaShem did provide the sacrifice. After removing Isaac from the altar and unbinding his restraints “Avraham raised his eyes and saw a ram after it had been caught in the thicket by its horns; and Avraham went and took the ram, and brought it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.”
We do need to ask a question here: Did HaShem, the Creator of all that is, the First and Last, the One Who knows the end from the beginning really need to find out if Avraham really feared Him? Of course not! I’m not even sure that at this point in his life Avraham needed to be convinced of his commitment and fear of HaShem. But who did then? Perhaps it was Isaac that needed to go through this great test of faithfulness more than his father. After all from this point on most of the rest of the story begins centering around Isaac and his offspring — those stars in the heavens and grains of sand on the ground. The first real progenitor of the Hebrew/Jewish people needed to become as fully grounded in his commitment and fear of YHVH as his father was and this was quite an initiation into that unique and special relationship between Isaac and HaShem. Like his father in the nine tests of faithfulness that preceded this tenth and final one for Avraham, his son Isaac passed with flying colors and we are extremely grateful for that as I would not be here today to write this accounting and many of you would not be here to read it had he failed.
We are closing out this part of the essay to show one more aspect of Avraham’s life before he dies and is made to lay at rest with his kin.
After the death of Sarah, Avraham did remarry to a woman named Keturah. She is an interesting woman whose background we know nothing of. Or do we? Many traditions within Judaism claim, and I am prone to believe them, because they show again, that foundational character trait of Avraham — his faithfulness. Some of our traditions teach that Keturah was Hagar the Egyptian servant of Sarah. (SEE: Genesis Rabba 61:5 as quoted by the famous Judah the Prince asserts this most profoundly — Also see: Targum Yerushalmi as well as the Midrashnic commentary of sages like Rabbi Judah Loew the Maharal of Prague, the Rashbam - Rabbi Samuel ben Meir a Tosafit and Talmudist)
Some disagree using the Book of Jubilees, a non-canonical Jewish text as a source, where its states that Avraham married Keturah only after Hagar’s death. My question would be why mention Avraham waiting to marry Keturah only after Hagar’s death at all unless Hagar still played a very significant role in his life beyond just being the servant mother of his first son Ishmael.
I tend to agree with the older sages like Judah the Prince that Keturah was likely Hagar because of the already well established character of Avraham as being a man of superb principal and faithfulness. I am sure that Avraham always felt guilt over abandoning Hagar the way he did even though HaShem had told him to do what his wife Sarah requested. Years of this weighing upon him finally found its release sometime after the mourning period for Sarah after her death and still being in contact with his son Ishmael opened the door for him to repair some of the damage done in Avraham’s relationship with Hagar and her son. So, he married her and fulfilled another promise of HaShem by having more children with Hagar his now wife leading him to become the father of many nations just as the new name AVRAHAM meant.
“This was the total span of Avraham’s life: 175 years. And Avraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contended; and he was gathered to his kin.” (Genesis 25:7-8)
Just as the life of Avraham began with a few short verses so it ends. However, the space in-between was more monumental than any life that had come before and would only be equaled many centuries later by the lives of Moshe Rabbenu and King David. Equaled but certainly not surpassed.
In Part Three of this essay we will look at the many extra-Biblical stories, tales, myths and legends about this bigger-than-life man Avraham.