The figure of Abraham, or Abram as he is initially known, dominates the book of Genesis and casts a shadow which extends across the whole Bible. Pre-eminent as a man of faith, and as such a model for others, he receives from God various promises which permeate both the OT and the NT. These promises involve the establishment of Abraham's descendants as a 'great nation' in the land of Canaan, and the blessing of all the nations of the earth through a future king descended from Abraham.
Abraham in Genesis
Of the human characters in Genesis, Abraham is by far the most important. This is reflected both in the length of the narrative devoted to him, and in the key theological concepts associated with him. Since the material concerning Abraham, beginning with the tôleḏôṯ heading in 11:27 ('This is the account of'; niv) and concluding with the report of his death in 25:7-11, forms an integral part of the book of Genesis, our reading of the Abraham narrative will take into account this broader context (see Genesis).
Abraham and the Line of 'Seed'
The book of Genesis traces, through the use of tôleḏôṯ headings and linear genealogies, a unique family line. This lineage is traced from Adam to Ephraim, later, beyond Genesis, being associated with Joshua. In the time of Samuel, however, it is divinely rejected (cf. Ps. 78) in favour of an alternative line traced through Judah (cf. Gen. 38:1-30; 49:8-12) to the royal house of David (cf. Ruth 4:18-22). The members of this lineage enjoy a special relationship with God and play a central role in the outworking of God's redemptive plan for humanity. In Genesis Abraham is a key figure in the lineage.
At the outset of the Abraham narrative, we learn that his wife is unable to have children (11:30). Sarah's barrenness prevents the continuation of the family line, and considerable attention is paid to the resolution of this problem. When the Lord assures Abraham that he will have a son of his own (15:1-5), Sarah persuades him to have a child by her maidservant Hagar (16:1-4). As a result Ishmael is born, and Abraham, by naming him, acknowledges him as his own son (16:15). Afterwards, however, God reveals on two occasions that Sarah herself will have a son (17:15-21; 18:9-15). When Isaac is eventually born (21:1-7), he is established as Abraham's main heir through the divinely approved expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael (21:8-21). Remarkably, Sarah gives birth to Isaac well beyond the natural age for a woman to have children – she is ninety years old. Here, as elsewhere in Genesis, the continuation of the line of 'seed' is attributed to God's intervention (25:21; 30:22-24; cf. 4:1; 29:33; 30:6).
Central to the Hebrew concept of 'seed' is the idea that the progeny resembles its progenitor. Since Abraham is the most prominent member of the line of 'seed' in Genesis it is anticipated that his descendants will resemble him. For this reason it is no coincidence that Isaac's stay in Gerar (26:1-33) parallels closely that of his father (20:1-18; 21:22-34). More significant, however, is the fact that Abraham is sometimes portrayed as having royal attributes. This is reflected in the account of his victory over the eastern kings (14:1-24), the desire of Abimelech king of Gerar to enter into a covenant with him (21:22-34), and his designation 'prince of god' by the inhabitants of Hebron (23:6). These factors suggest that the line of 'seed' traced in Genesis anticipates the establishment of a royal dynasty (cf. 17:6, 16; 35:11; 36:31; 37:8-11; 41:39-43; 49:8-12).
Abraham and the Promise of Nationhood
Closely linked to the continuation of Abraham's family line is the divine promise that he will become a 'great nation' (12:2). Implicit in this promise of nationhood is the idea that Abraham will have numerous descendants who will possess a particular land; the Hebrew term gôy, 'nation', denotes people inhabiting a specific geographical location and forming a political unit. Significantly, the promise of nationhood follows on from the Lord's initial command to Abraham to leave his own country, people and family, and 'go to the land I will show you' (12:1). When Abraham subsequently arrives in Canaan, the Lord states, 'To your offspring [seed] I will give this land' (12:7). Later, after the separation of Lot from Abraham, the Lord repeats this promise, emphasizing the extent of the land to be possessed by Abraham's descendants (13:14-17). The topic of nationhood reappears in chapter 15 where a new element is introduced; Abraham's descendants will possess the land of Canaan only after a period of four hundred years, during which they will be slaves in another country (15:13-14). This announcement of a delay in the acquisition of the land possibly explains why the promise of land, which is very prominent in chapters 12-15, is mentioned less frequently in the rest of the Abraham narrative (cf. 17:8; 22:17). Although later episodes record Abraham's acquisition of a well at Beersheba (21:22-34) and a tomb at Hebron (23:1-20), we must look far beyond these to see God fulfilling his promise to Abraham that he will become a great nation.
Within the Abraham narrative the promise of nationhood comes to an important climax in chapter 15. Here God, by means of a special ritual, makes a covenant with Abraham to give his descendants the land 'from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates' (15:18). Through this covenant the Lord guarantees unconditionally all that was previously promised to Abraham regarding land and descendants. Nowhere, however, is it suggested that the fulfilment of this covenant is dependent upon the actions of either Abraham or his descendants. Rather God commits himself unreservedly to fulfil his promise that Abraham's descendants will become a 'great nation' in the land of Canaan. The account of this covenant's being honoured by God is recorded in the books of Exodus to 2 Samuel (cf. 2 Sam. 8:1-14). (See Israel.)
Abraham and the Blessing of the Nations
Taking Genesis as a whole the divine speech in 12:1-3 is exceptionally important. It not only marks a new phase in God's relationship with human beings, but also sets the agenda for the entire Abraham story and subsequent events. In calling Abraham to leave his own people and country, God promises that he will be a source of divine blessing, or possibly cursing, to others. The Lord says to Abraham, 'Be a blessing, so that I may bless those who bless you, and curse the one who disdains you, and so that all the families of the ground may be blessed through you' (12:2b–3, author's translation).
God's desire to bless Abraham, and through him to bless others, stands in sharp contrast to the events described in Genesis 3-11. Whereas these earlier chapters are dominated by the effects of divine punishment inflicted as a result of human disobedience, the Abraham narrative emphasizes the theme of divine blessing. This is underlined in 12:1-3 by the fivefold repetition of the Hebrew verb bārak, 'to bless'.
The climax of God's call to Abraham comes in the statement 'so that all the families of the ground may be blessed through you'. The promise that Abraham will become a 'great nation', which comes in the first part of the divine speech in 12:1-3, is subservient to God's principal desire to bless all the families of the ground. The prime motive behind the call of Abraham is God's intention to bless humanity and reverse the disastrous consequences of Adam and Eve's rebellion in the Garden of Eden.
Although the idea that all the families of the ground will be blessed through Abraham is introduced in 12:3, it is not until chapter 17 that it is developed further by means of the covenant of circumcision. From God's perspective this covenant focuses on Abraham as 'the father of many nations'. God states, 'As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you' (17:4-6).
Later God says regarding Sarah: 'I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her' (17:16). The mention of nations coming from Abraham and Sarah presents a problem if taken to mean those nations directly descended from both of them; strictly speaking, only the Israelites and Edomites fall into this category. However, the idea of Abraham's being the father of many nations is not restricted here to physical descendants; in Genesis the term 'father' does not always denote a biological relationship (in 45:8 Joseph is described as 'father to Pharaoh'; cf. Judg. 17:10; 2 Kgs. 2:12). Furthermore, in chapter 17 God instructs Abraham to circumcise not merely his own family members but every male 'including those born in your household or bought with your money from a foreigner – those who are not your offspring (seed)' (17:12). This suggests that circumcision enables those who are not biologically related to Abraham to become his 'children', and hence to benefit from the divine blessing mediated by Abraham. Later, in the account of the rape of Dinah, it is noteworthy that the men of Shechem circumcise themselves in order to establish a kinship relationship with Jacob's family (34:14-23). These factors suggest that the covenant of circumcision is primarily concerned with the mediation of God's blessing to all the nations of the earth.
Whereas the promissory covenant of chapter 15 is unconditional, the establishment of the covenant of circumcision is dependent upon Abraham's continuing obedience to God. This is highlighted in the introduction to chapter 17. After identifying himself as ēl šadday ('God Almighty'), the Lord says to Abraham, 'Walk before me and be blameless so that I may confirm my covenant between me and you and increase you greatly' (17:1-2, author's translation). The covenant of circumcision will be confirmed only if Abraham walks before God and is blameless. For the ratification of the covenant we must look to the divine oath which concludes the account of the testing of Abraham in chapter 22.
God's speech in 22:16-18 is not only the climax to the account of the testing of Abraham but also closes the main section of the Abraham narrative by echoing his initial call in 12:1-3. The solemnity and importance of this speech in chapter 22 is underlined by the fact that only here in Genesis does the Lord swear by himself. Much of what was promised conditionally in 12:1-3 is now guaranteed unconditionally by divine oath. While the first mention of 'seed' in 22:17 denotes 'descendants' in the plural, the remaining references to 'seed' are ambiguous; they could refer either to many descendants or to a single descendant. On syntactical grounds (see T. D. Alexander, 'Further observations on the term "seed" in Genesis', TynB 48, 1997, pp. 363-367), God's comment in 22:18, 'Your seed will take possession of the cities of his enemies and through your seed all nations on earth will be blessed', is best understood as referring to a single descendant (cf. Ps. 72:17).
The idea that the nations will be blessed through a single descendant of Abraham is associated in Genesis with those who receive the blessing given to the firstborn. Thus, although Esau and Jacob are both the biological 'seed' of Isaac, it is Jacob alone who experiences God's blessing in an extraordinary way and imparts it to others (cf. Gen. 29:32-33; 30:6, 17-18, 20, 22-24, 27-30; 32:3-21; 35:9). Similarly, of Jacob's twelve sons Joseph, treated by his father as the firstborn (cf. 1 Chr. 5:1-2), is the one through whom others are divinely blessed (cf. Gen. 39:2-6, 20-23; 41:56-57; 47:13-26). While this line is continued initially through the tribe of Ephraim (Gen. 48:1-20; 49:22-26), it is later transferred to the tribe of Judah (cf. Ps. 78:67-72), and comes to fulfilment in Jesus Christ (e.g. Acts 3:24-26; Gal. 3:8-18).
Abraham's Faith, Obedience and Righteousness
The Abraham narrative provides an interesting picture of the interplay between divine word and human faith and obedience. Initially, the Lord makes a series of promises, the fulfilment of which is conditional upon Abraham's obedience (12:1-3). By commanding him to leave his homeland and be a blessing, God requires Abraham to respond positively in order that the promises concerning nationhood and the blessing of others may be fulfilled. As Abraham in faith obeys and journeys to Canaan, God declares that he shall have both land and descendants (12:7; 13:14-17). Later, when Abraham seeks reassurance from God, these statements are divinely guaranteed by a promissory covenant (15:1-21). The narrative, however, goes on to highlight Abraham's continuing faith in and obedience to God, as revealed in the establishment of the eternal covenant of circumcision (17:1-27), a covenant which focuses on the blessing that will come through Abraham and his 'seed' to all nations. Significantly, this covenant is ratified only after Abraham is tested by being required to sacrifice his only son Isaac (22:1-19). From beginning to end, faith expressed in obedience is the hallmark of Abraham's relationship with the Lord.
In all this Genesis 15:6 stands out as particularly significant: 'Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.' The rarity in Genesis of such comments by the narrator makes them especially important. Here Abraham is viewed as righteous in God's sight because he believes unreservedly that the Lord will fulfil his promise regarding a son and numerous descendants. Abraham is reckoned righteous on account of his faith in God's promise, rather than because of any deeds performed by him.
Abraham's faith is all the more remarkable when the following factors are taken into account. First, the divine promises concerning nationhood and the blessing of all the families of the earth will never be fulfilled in Abraham's lifetime; at the very most Abraham will experience only the firstfruits of their fulfilment. Secondly, circumstances exist or develop which militate against the fulfilment of these promises. Sarah's barrenness, linked to her advancing years, is a major obstacle, and, even when all seems assured with the birth of Isaac, God himself places the future fulfilment of the promises in jeopardy by demanding that Abraham sacrifice Isaac. Yet in spite of these difficulties Abraham displays exemplary faith in God.
While the writer of Genesis highlights Abraham's virtues, lapses of faith are also noted. This is especially evident when Abraham pretends that Sarah is his sister (12:10-20; 20:1-18). Although Abraham's lack of trust in God is revealed on these occasions, and possibly also in connection with the birth of Ishmael (16:1-16), it is outweighed by the faith in God which he demonstrates elsewhere.
Abraham in the Rest of the OT
Outside Genesis there are forty-three references to Abraham in the OT, and two to Abram (1 Chr. 1:27; Neh. 9:7). Abraham is frequently mentioned, usually with Isaac and Jacob, in connection with the covenant which God made regarding the land of Canaan (Exod. 6:8; 32:13; 33:1; Lev. 26:42; Num. 32:11; Deut. 1:8; 6:10; 9:5; 29:13; 30:20; 34:4; 2 Kgs. 13:23; 2 Chr. 20:7; Ezek. 33:24). The fulfilment of the divine promise of land is viewed as resulting from Abraham's special relationship with God; twice he is called God's friend (2 Chr. 20:7; Is. 41:8). Since the Israelites come to possess the land of Canaan because they are Abraham's descendants, descent from Abraham is viewed as especially important. This conviction is even more evident in the NT.
Abraham in the NT
Many references to Abraham in the NT focus either directly or indirectly on his status as father of the Jewish people (Matt. 3:9; Luke 1:55, 73; 3:8; 16:24, 30; John 8:39, 53, 56; Acts 7:2; Rom. 4:12, 16; Jas. 2:21; cf. Exod. 3:6; Josh. 24:3; Is. 51:2). According to various passages, some Jews considered their descent from Abraham as a guarantee of God's blessing. In the Gospels such thinking is challenged by John the Baptist (Matt. 3:9; Luke 3:8) and Jesus (Luke 16:19-31; John 8:31-59). Jesus stresses that Abraham's children will resemble him (John 8:39), and Paul develops the same point at length in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 by observing that the true children of Abraham are those who 'share the faith of Abraham' (Rom. 4:16; Gal. 3:7). However, within the NT, especially in Romans, Galatians, Hebrews and James, the most noteworthy aspect of Abraham's life is his faith.
Abraham in Romans and Galatians
There can be little doubt that Paul's understanding of the gospel was heavily influenced by his reading of the Abraham narrative in Genesis. This is particularly apparent in his letters to the churches in Galatia and Rome. In these he focuses on Abraham in order to challenge the view of his opponents that Gentile believers must be circumcised and obey the law of Moses in order to know God's salvation.
In his letter to the Galatians Paul responds at length to those who were emphasizing the necessity of observing the law for salvation. Quoting Genesis 15:6, 'Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness,' he observes briefly that Abraham's righteousness was achieved not by keeping the law but by believing God. Furthermore, he says, 'those who believe are children of Abraham' (Gal. 3:7).
Paul, however, does not conclude his argument at this point. He underlines three further aspects of the Abraham narrative in order to drive home his case that Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ now receive God's blessing. First, he sees in the justification of the Gentiles the fulfilment of the divine promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him (Gal. 3:9). By highlighting the emphasis which Genesis places on all nations being blessed through Abraham, Paul challenges the view of his opponents that God's salvation was only for those who were circumcised and kept the law of Moses.
Secondly, Paul argues that the divine promises made to Abraham find their ultimate fulfilment in Jesus Christ. To arrive at this conclusion he notes that the promises were given to Abraham and his 'seed'. For Paul this 'seed' is Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:16). At first sight Paul's identification of this 'seed' with Jesus Christ seems contrived. However, the Hebrew word zera', 'seed', is a keyword in Genesis, and while it sometimes denotes a group of people, it may also refer to a single individual (e.g. Gen. 4:25; 21:13). This latter possibility is significant, especially given that the book of Genesis highlights a particular line of 'seed' which formed the early ancestry of the Davidic dynasty. Since Genesis anticipates a future royal 'seed' through whom God will fulfil his promise to Abraham to bless all nations, Paul's interpretation of the term zera' as referring to Jesus Christ is in keeping with the common NT understanding of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah. A similar view is proclaimed by Peter in Acts 3:25-26.
Finally, Paul argues in Galatians that the divine promise/covenant made with Abraham takes precedence over the law given several centuries later at Mt Sinai (Gal. 3:15-25). Whereas his opponents were claiming that believers must keep the law in order to be righteous, Paul responds by noting that the law, given later to fulfil a temporary role until Christ came, could never make anyone righteous; it merely indicated the righteousness required by God, and was not the means of achieving such righteousness. Thus it underlined the necessity of becoming righteous through faith.
A similar, but not identical, argument is advanced in Romans 4. Here, as in Galatians, Paul is concerned to argue that the righteousness by which an individual is justified comes from God through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:21-22). Once again the argument centres on Genesis 15:6. For Paul, the sequence of events in the Abraham story is all important. Since Abraham was credited as righteous prior to being circumcised, it must follow that circumcision is not necessary in order for an individual to be reckoned righteous by God. Furthermore, Paul stresses that Abraham is the father of those who have faith, whether they are his natural descendants or not (Rom. 4:9-12; cf. Rom. 9:6-8). Thus he concludes that Jews and Gentiles can be justified only by faith.
Abraham in Hebrews
Abraham's faith is highlighted also in Hebrews 11, the detailed list of those 'ancients' who were commended for having faith. Approximately one-third of the chapter is devoted to Abraham (Heb. 11:8-19), making him by far the most important person listed; Moses, who is next in importance, receives about half the space given to Abraham (Heb. 11:23-28). Fittingly, the author of Hebrews highlights Abraham's faith as an example of 'being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see' (Heb. 11:1).
In keeping with the overall theological emphasis in Hebrews, Abraham is portrayed as living 'like a stranger in a foreign country' (Heb. 11:9), 'looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God' (11:10; cf. 12:22). This city is located in 'a better country – a heavenly one' (11:16). These descriptions resemble the picture in the final two chapters of Revelation. With the creation of a new heaven and a new earth, John sees 'the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband' (Rev. 21:2).
While the book of Genesis does not reveal explicitly what expectations Abraham may have had concerning the future, a deliberate contrast is made between him and those who sought to build a city, Babel, with a tower that reached to the heavens (Gen. 11:1-9). In spite of God's promises concerning the land of Canaan, Abraham did not attempt to found a city there. Indeed, towards the end of his life, he described himself to the people of Hebron as 'an alien and a stranger among you' (cf. Gen. 23:4).
Abraham in James
Abraham's faith is discussed also in James 2:20-24. Here, however, the context differs from that found in Romans and Galatians. Whereas Paul seeks to demonstrate the priority of faith over circumcision and keeping the law, James is concerned to clarify the nature of saving faith: 'What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him' (Jas. 2:14)? At the heart of James's discussion is the desire to show that true faith in God will exhibit itself in righteous actions. Thus, he focuses on Abraham and in particular the offering of Isaac on the altar (Jas. 2:21-23). In doing so James reveals how faith in and obedience to God cannot be separated. While James accepts that Abraham was justified by faith, as stated in Genesis 15:6, he views his later actions as visible expressions of this inner faith. Undoubtedly he focuses on Genesis 22 because of the way in which Abraham is rewarded for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. For James there can be no separation of faith and deeds. Thus, he views Abraham's actions in Genesis 22 as the fulfilment or culmination of what was described in Genesis 15:6.
Although James writes that 'a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone' (Jas. 2:24), it is clear from the context that he does not contradict what Paul says in Romans and Galatians. They are addressing different situations and therefore highlight different aspects of Abraham's faith. On the one hand, Paul concentrates on Genesis 15:6 because he is responding either directly or indirectly to those who wish to emphasize the necessity of circumcision and/or keeping the law for salvation. On the other hand, James is concerned to show that Abraham's faith, by which he was justified, produced righteous actions. Thus, he writes, 'faith without deeds is dead' (Jas. 2:26). Undoubtedly Paul and James would have agreed wholeheartedly with what the other had to say, given the different problems that confronted them.
Of the many and varied figures to appear in the Bible Abraham is clearly one of the most significant. Our survey reveals four main ideas that dominate the way in which he is portrayed. 1. Abraham's trust in and obedience to God is exemplary; his inner faith demonstrated itself in ongoing obedience to God. 2. Abraham was reckoned righteous by God on account of his faith prior to being circumcised. 3. All who exhibit similar faith are Abraham's children and share in the blessing associated with the divine promises made to Abraham. 4. The divine promises to Abraham anticipate the coming of a royal descendant who will impart God's blessing to all the nations of the earth. Although the Genesis narrative does not identify this future king, the NT writers, building on the rest of the OT, share the belief that he is Jesus Christ, the son of David. While the story of Abraham's life appears first in Genesis, it is obvious that this account influenced significantly the thinking of the early church regarding the nature of Jesus Christ's mission to the world and its understanding of personal salvation.
See also: Blessing/Curse; Land; Nations; Seed.
T. D. Alexander, Abraham in the Negev: A Source-critical Investigation of Genesis 20:1-22:9 (Carlisle, 1997); idem, 'Abraham re-assessed theologically: the Abraham narrative and the New Testament understanding of justification by faith', in R. S. Hess, P. E. Satterthwaite and G. J. Wenham (eds.), He Swore an Oath: Biblical Themes from Genesis 12-50 (Grand Rapids and Carlisle, 21994), pp. 7-28; G. W. Hansen, Abraham in Galatians: Epistolary and Rhetorical Contexts (Sheffield, 1989); J. Muilenburg, 'Abraham and the nations: blessing and world history', Int 19, 1965, pp. 387-398; L. A. Turner, Announcements of Plot in Genesis (Sheffield, 1990).
T. D. Alexander