International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
In the Old Testament, when applied, to the patriarch, the name appears asאברם, 'abhrām, up to Gen17:5; thereafter always as אברהם, 'abhrāhām̌. Two other persons are named אבירם, 'ăbhīrām̌. The identity of this name with 'abhrām cannot be doubted in view of the variation between 'ăbhīnēr and 'abhnēr, 'ăbhīshālōm and 'abhshālōm, etc. Abraham also appears in the list at Karnak of places conquered by Sheshonk I: 'brm (no. 72) represents ברם), with which Spiegelberg (Aegypt. Randglossen zum Altes Testament, 14) proposes to connect the preceding name (so that the whole would read “the field of Abram.” Outside of Palestine this name (Abirāmu) has come to light just where from the Biblical tradition we should expect to find it, namely, in Babylonia (e.g. in a contract of the reign of Apil-Sin, second predecessor of H̬ammurabi; also for the aunt (!) of Esarhaddon 680-669 bc). Ungnad has recently found it, among documents from Dilbat dating from the H̬ammurabi dynasty, in the forms A-ba-am-ra-ma, A-ba-am-ra-am, as well as A-ba-ra-ma.
Until this latest discovery of the apparently full, historical form of the Babylonian equivalent, the best that could be done with the etymology was to make the first constituent “father of” (construct -i rather than suffix -i), and the second constituent “Ram,” a proper name or an abbreviation of a name. (Yet observe above its use in Assyria for a woman; compare ABISHAG; ABIGAIL). Some were inclined rather to concede that the second element was a mystery, like the second element in the majority of names beginning with'ābh and 'aḥ, “father” and “brother.” But the full cuneiform writing of the name, with the case-ending am, indicates that the noun “father” is in the accusative, governed by the verb which furnishes the second component, and that this verb therefore is probably rāmu (= Hebrew רחם, rāḥam) “to love,” etc.; so that the name would mean something like “he loves the (his) father.” (So Ungnad, also Ranke in Gressmann's article “Sage und Geschichte in den Patriarchenerzahlungen,” ZATW (1910), 3.) Analogy proves that this is in the Babylonian fashion of the period, and that judging from the various writings of this and similar names, its pronunciation was not far from 'abh-rām̌.
While the name is thus not “Hebrew” in origin, it made itself thoroughly at home among the Hebrews, and to their ears conveyed associations quite different from its etymological signification. “Popular etymology” here as so often doubtless led the Hebrew to hear in'abh-rām, “exalted father,” a designation consonant with the patriarch's national and religious significance. In the form 'abh-rāhām his ear caught the echo of some root (perhaps r-h-m; compare Arabic ruhām, “multitude”) still more suggestive of the patriarch's extensive progeny, the reason (“for”) that accompanies the change of name Gen17:5 being intended only as a verbal echo of the sense in the sound. This longer and commoner form is possibly a dialectical variation of the shorter form, a variation for which there are analogies in comparative Semitic grammar. It is, however, possible also that the two forms are different names, and that 'abh-rāhām is etymologically, and not merely by association of sound, “father of a multitude” (as above). (Another theory, based on South-Arabic orthography, in Hommel, Altisraelitische Ueberlieferung, 177.)
Gen11:27, which introduces Abraham, contains the heading, “These are the generations of Terah.” All the story of Abraham is contained within the section of Genesis so entitled. Through Terah Abraham's ancestry is traced back to Shem, and he is thus related to Mesopotamian and Arabian families that belonged to the “Semitic” race. He is further connected with this race geographically by his birthplace, which is given as 'ūr-kasdīm (see UR), and by the place of his pre-Canaanitish residence, Haran in the Aramean region. The purely Semitic ancestry of his descendants through Isaac is indicated by his marriage with his own half-sister (Gen20:12), and still further emphasized by the choice for his daughter-in-law of Rebekah, descended from both of his brothers, Nahor and Haran (Gen11:29; Gen22:22). Both the beginning and the end of the residence in Haran are left chronologically undetermined, for the new beginning of the narrative at Gen12:1 is not intended by the writer to indicate chronological sequence, though it has been so understood, e.g. by Stephen (Act7:4). All that is definite in point of time is that an Aramean period of residence intervened between the Babylonian origin and the Palestinian career of Abraham. It is left to a comparison of the Biblical data with one another and with the data of archaeology, to fix the opening of Abraham's career in Palestine not far from the middle of the 20th century bc.
Briefiy summed up, that career was as follows.
Abraham, endowed with Yahweh's promise of limitless blessing, leaves Haran with Lot his nephew and all their establishment, and enters Canaan. Successive stages of the slow journey southward are indicated by the mention of Shechem, Bethel and the Negeb (South-country). Driven by famine into Egypt, Abraham finds hospitable reception, though at the price of his wife's honor, whom the Pharaoh treats in a manner characteristic of an Egyptian monarch. (Gressmann, op. cit., quotes from Meyer, Geschichte des Alterthums, 12, 142, the passage from a magic formula in the pyramid of Unas, a Pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty: “Then he (namely, the Pharaoh) takes away the wives from their husbands whither he will if desire seize his heart.”) Retracing the path to Canaan with an augmented train, at Bethel Abraham and Lot find it necessary to part company. Lot and his dependents choose for residence the great Jordan Depression; Abraham follows the backbone of the land southward to Hebron, where he settles, not in the city, but before its gates “by the great trees” (Septuagint sing., “oak”) of Mamre.
Affiliation between Abraham and the local chieftains is strengthened by a brief campaign, in which all unite their available forces for the rescue of Lot from an Elamite king and his confederates from Babylonia. The pursuit leads them as far as the Lebanon region. On the return they are met by Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of'ēl ‛elyōn, and blessed by him in his priestly capacity, which Abraham recognizes by presenting him with a tithe of the spoils. Abraham's anxiety for a son to be the bearer of the divine promises conferred upon a “seed” yet unborn should have been relieved by the solemn renewal thereof in a formal covenant, with precise specifications of God's gracious purpose. But human desire cannot wait upon divine wisdom, and the Egyptian woman Hagar bears to Abraham a son, Ishmael, whose existence from its inception proves a source of moral evil within the patriarchal household. The sign of circumcision and the change of names are given in confirmation of the covenant still unrealized, together with specification of the time and the person that should begin its realization. The theophany that symbolized outwardly this climax of the Divine favor serves also for an intercessory colloquy, in which Abraham is granted the deliverance of Lot in the impending overthrow of Sodom. Lot and his family, saved thus by human fidelity and Divine clemency, exhibit in the moral traits shown in their escape and subsequent life the degeneration naturally to be expected from their corrupt environment. Moabites and Ammonites are traced in their origin to these cousins of Jacob and Esau.
Removal to the South-country did not mean permanent residence in a single spot, but rather a succession of more or less temporary resting-places. The first of these was in the district of Gerar, with whose king, Abimelech, Abraham and his wife had an experience similar to the earlier one with the Pharaoh. The birth of Isaac was followed by the expulsion of Ishmael and his mother, and the sealing of peaceful relations with the neighbors by covenant at Beersheba. Even the birth of Isaac, however, did not end the discipline of Abraham's faith in the promise, for a Divine command to sacrifice the life of this son was accepted bona fide, and only the sudden interposition of a Divine prohibition prevented its obedient execution. The death of Sarah became the occasion for Abraham's acquisition of the first permanent holding of Palestine soil, the nucleus of his promised inheritance, and at the same time suggested the probable approach of his own death. This thought led to immediate provision for a future seed to inherit through Isaac, a provision realized in Isaac's marriage with Rebekah, grand-daughter of Abraham's brother Nahor and of Milcah the sister of Lot. But a numerous progeny not associated with the promise grew up in Abraham's household, children of Keturah, a woman who appears to have had the rank of wife after Sarah's death, and of other women unnamed, who were his concubines. Though this last period was passed in the Negeb, Abraham was interred at Hebron in his purchased possession, the spot with which Semitic tradition has continued to associate him to this day.
The life of Abraham in its outward features may be considered under the following topics: economic, social, political and cultural conditions.
Abraham's manner of life may best be described by the adjective “semi-nomadic,” and illustrated by the somewhat similar conditions prevailing today in those border-communities of the East that fringe the Syrian and Arabian deserts. Residence is in tents, wealth consists of flocks, herds and slaves, and there is no ownership of ground, only at most a proprietorship in well or tomb. All this in common with the nomad. But there is a relative, or rather, intermittent fixity of habitation, unlike the pure Bedouin, a limited amount of agriculture, and finally a sense of divergence from the Ishmael type - all of which tend to assimilate the seminomadic Abraham to the fixed Canaanitish population about him. As might naturally be expected, such a condition is an unstable equilibrium, which tends, in the family of Abraham as in the history of all border-tribes of the desert, to settle back one way or the other, now into the city-life of Lot, now into the desert-life of Ishmael.
The head of a family, under these conditions, becomes at the same time the chief of a tribe, that live together under patriarchal rule though they by no means share without exception the tie of kinship. The family relations depicted in Gen conform to and are illuminated by the social features of Code ofH̬ammurabi. (See K. D. Macmillan, article “Marriage among the Early Babylonians and Hebrews,” Princeton Theological Review, April, 1908.) There is one legal wife, Sarah, who, because persistently childless, obtains the coveted offspring by giving her own maid to Abraham for that purpose (compare Code of H̬ammurabi, sections 144, 146). The son thus borne, Ishmael, is Abraham's legal son and heir. When Isaac is later borne by Sarah, the elder son is disinherited by divine command (Gen21:10-12) against Abraham's wish which represented the prevailing law and custom (Code of H̬ammurabi, sections 168f). The “maid-servants” mentioned in the inventories of Abraham's wealth (Gen12:16; Gen24:35) doubtless furnished the “concubines” mentioned in Gen25:6 as having borne sons to him. Both mothers and children were slaves, but had the right to freedom, though not to inheritance, on the death of the father (Code of H̬ammurabi, section 171). After Sarah's death another woman seems to have succeeded to the position of legal wife, though if so the sons she bore were disinherited like Ishmael (Gen25:5). In addition to the children so begotten by Abraham the “men of his house” (Gen17:27) consisted of two classes, the “home-born” slaves (Gen14:14; Gen17:12, Gen17:23, Gen17:27) and the “purchased” slaves (ibid.). The extent of the patriarchal tribe may be surmised from the number (318) of men among them capable of bearing arms, near the beginning of Abraham's career, yet after his separation from Lot, and recruited seemingly from the “home-born” class exclusively (Gen14:14). Over this entire establishment Abraham ruled with a power more, rather than less, absolute than that exhibited in detail in the Code of H̬ammurabi: more absolute, because Abraham was independent of any permanent superior authority, and so combined in his own person the powers of the Babylonian paterfamilias and of the Canaanite city-king. Social relations outside of the family-tribe may best be considered under the next heading.
It is natural that the chieftain of so considerable an organism should appear an attractive ally and a formidable foe to any of the smaller political units of his environment. That Canaan was at the time composed of just such inconsiderable units, namely, city-states with petty kings, and scattered fragments of older populations, is abundantly clear from the Biblical tradition and verified from other sources. Egypt was the only great power with which Abraham came into political contact after leaving the East. In the section of Genesis which describes this contact with the Pharaoh Abraham is suitably represented as playing no political role, but as profiting by his stay in Egypt only through an incidental social relation: when this terminates he is promptly ejected. The role of conqueror of Chedorlaomer, the Elamite invader, would be quite out of keeping with Abraham's political status elsewhere, if we were compelled by the narrative in Gen 14 to suppose a pitched battle between the forces of Abraham and those of the united Babylonian armies. What that chapter requires is in fact no more than a midnight surprise, by Abraham's band (including the forces of confederate chieftains), of a rear-guard or baggage-train of the Babylonians inadequately manned and picketed (“Slaughter” is quite too strong a rendering of the originalhakkōth, “smiting,” Gen14:17) Respect shown Abraham by the kings of Salem (Gen14:18), of Sodom (Gen14:21) and of Gerar (Gen20:14-16) was no more than might be expected from their relative degrees of political importance, although a moral precedence, assumed in the tradition, may well have contributed to this respect.
Recent archaeological research has revolutionized our conception of the degree of culture which Abraham could have possessed and therefore presumably did possess. The high plane which literature had attained in both Babylonia and Egypt by 2000 bc is sufficient witness to the opportunities open to the man of birth and wealth in that day for the interchange of lofty thought. And, without having recourse to Abraham's youth in Babylonia, we may assert even for the scenes of Abraham's maturer life the presence of the same culture, on the basis of a variety of facts, the testimony of which converges in this point, that Canaan in the second millennium bc was at the center of the intellectual life of the East and cannot have failed to afford, to such of its inhabitants as chose to avail themselves of it, every opportunity for enjoying the fruits of others' culture and for recording the substance of their own thoughts, emotions and activities
Abraham's inward life may be considered under the rubrics of religion, ethics and personal traits.
The religion of Abraham centered in his faith in one God, who, because believed by him to be possessor of heaven and earth (Gen14:22; Gen24:3), sovereign judge of the nations (Gen15:14) of all the earth (Gen18:25), disposer of the forces of Nature (Gen18:14; Gen19:24; Gen20:17), exalted (Gen14:22) and eternal (Gen21:33), was for Abraham at least the only God. So far as the Biblical tradition goes, Abraham's monotheism was not aggressive (otherwise in later Jewish tradition), and it is theoretically possible to attribute to him a merely “monarchical” or “henotheistic” type of monotheism, which would admit the coexistence with his deity, say, of the “gods which (his) fathers served” (Jos24:14), or the identity with his deity of the supreme god of some Canaanite neighbor (Gen14:18). Yet this distinction of types of monotheism does not really belong to the sphere of religion as such, but rather to that of speculative philosophical thought. As religion, monotheism is just monotheism, and it asserts itself in corollaries drawn by the intellect only so far as the scope of the monotheist's intellectual life applies it. For Abraham Yahweh not only was alone God; He was also his personal God in a closeness of fellowship (Gen24:40; Gen48:15) that has made him for three religions the type of the pious man (2Ch20:7; Isa41:8, Jam2:23, note the Arabic name of Hebron El-Khalīl, i.e. the friend (viz of God)) To Yahweh Abraham attributed the moral attributes of Justice (Gen18:25), righteousness (Gen18:19), faithfulness (Gen24:27), wisdom (Gen20:6), goodness (Gen19:19), mercy (Gen20:6). These qualities were expected of men, and their contraries in men were punished by Yahweh (Gen18:19; Gen20:11). He manifested Himself in dreams (Gen20:3), visions (Gen15:1) and theophanies (Gen18:1), including the voice or apparition of the Divine mal'ākh or messenger (“angel”) (Gen16:7; Gen22:11) On man's part, in addition to obedience to Yahweh's moral requirements and special commands, the expression of his religious nature was expected in sacrifice. This bringing of offerings to the deity was diligently practiced by Abraham, as indicated by the mention of his erection of an altar at each successive residence. Alongside of this act of sacrifice there is sometimes mention of a “calling upon the name” of Yahweh (compare 1Ki18:24; Psa116:13). This publication of his faith, doubtless in the presence of Canaanites, had its counterpart also in the public regard in which he was held as a “prophet” or spokesman for God (Gen20:7). His mediation showed itself also in intercessory prayer (Gen17:20 for Ishmael; Gen18:23-32; compare Gen19:29 for Lot; Gen20:17 for Abimelech), which was but a phase of his general practice of prayer. The usual accompaniment of sacrifice, a professional priesthood, does not occur in Abraham's family, yet he recognizes priestly prerogative in the person of Melchizedek, priest-king of Salem (Gen14:20). Religious sanction of course surrounds the taking of oaths (Gen14:22; Gen24:3) and the sealing of covenants (Gen21:23). Other customs associated with religion are circumcision (Gen17:10-14), given to Abraham as the sign of the perpetual covenant; tithing (Gen14:20), recognized as the priest's due; and child-sacrifice (Gen22:2, Gen22:12), enjoined upon Abraham only to be expressly forbidden, approved for its spirit but interdicted in its practice.
As already indicated, the ethical attributes of God were regarded by Abraham as the ethical requirement of man. This in theory. In the sphere of applied ethics and casuistry Abraham's practice, at least, fell short of this ideal, even in the few incidents of his life preserved to us. It is clear that these lapses from virtue were offensive to the moral sense of Abraham's biographer, but we are left in the dark as to Abraham's sense of moral obliquity. (The “dust and ashes” ofGen18:27 has no moral implication.) The demands of candor and honor are not satisfactorily met, certainly not in the matter of Sarah's relationship to him (Gen12:11-13; Gen20:2; compare Gen12:11-13), perhaps not in the matter of Isaac's intended sacrifice (Gen22:5, Gen22:8). To impose our own monogamous standard of marriage upon the patriarch would be unfair, in view of the different standard of his age and land. It is to his credit that no such scandals are recorded in his life and family as blacken the record of Lot (Gen19:30-38), Reuben (Gen35:22) and Judah (Gen38:15-18). Similarly, Abraham's story shows only regard for life and property, both in respecting the rights of others and in expecting the same from them - the antipodes of Ishmael's character (Gen16:12).
Outside, the bounds of strictly ethical requirement, Abraham's personality displayed certain characteristics that not only mark him out distinctly among the figures of history, but do him great credit as a singularly symmetrical and attractive character. Of his trust and reverence enough has been said under the head of religion. But this love that is “the fulfilling of the law,” manifested in such piety toward God, showed itself toward men in exceptional generosity (Gen13:9; Gen14:23; Gen23:9, Gen23:13; Gen24:10; Gen25:6), fidelity (Gen14:14, Gen14:24; Gen17:18; Gen18:23-32; Gen19:27; Gen21:11; Gen23:2), hospitality (Gen18:2-8; Gen21:8) and compassion (Gen16:6 and Gen21:14 when rightly understood, Gen18:23-32). A solid self-respect (Gen14:23; Gen16:6; Gen21:25; Gen23:9, Gen23:13, Gen23:16; Gen24:4) and real courage (Gen14:14-16) were, however, marred by the cowardice that sacrificed Sarah to purchase personal safety where he had reason to regard life as insecure (Gen20:11).
Abraham is a significant figure throughout the Bible, and plays an important role in extra-Biblical Jewish tradition and in the Mohammedan religion.
It is naturally as progenitor of the people of Israel, “the seed of Abraham,” as they are often termed, that Abraham stands out most prominently in the Old Testament books. Sometimes the contrast between him as an individual and his numerous progeny serves to point a lesson (Isa51:2; Eze33:24; perhaps Mal2:10; compare Mal2:15). “The God of Abraham” serves as a designation of Yahweh from the time of Isaac to the latest period; it is by this title that Moses identifies the God who has sent him with the ancestral deity of the children of Israel (Exo3:15). Men remembered in those later times that this God appeared to Abraham in theophany (Exo6:3), and, when he was still among his people who worshipped other gods (Jos24:3) chose him (Neh9:7), led him, redeemed him (Isa29:22) and made him the recipient of those special blessings (Mic7:20) which were pledged by covenant and oath (so every larger historical book, also the historical Psa105:9), notably the inheritance of the land of Canaan (Deu6:10) Nor was Abraham's religious personality forgotten by his posterity: he was remembered by them as God's friend (2Ch20:7; Isa41:8), His servant, the very recollection of whom by God would offset the horror with which the sins of his descendants inspired Yahweh (Deu9:27).
When we pass to the New Testament we are astonished at the wealth and variety of allusion to Abraham. As in the Old Testament, his position of ancestor lends him much of his significance, not only as ancestor of Israel (Act13:26), but specifically as ancestor, now of the Levitical priesthood (Heb7:5), now of the Messiah (Mat1:1), now, by the peculiarly Christian doctrine of the unity of believers in Christ, of Christian believers (Gal3:16, Gal3:29). All that Abraham the ancestor received through Divine election, by the covenant made with him, is inherited by his seed and passes under the collective names of the promise (Rom4:13), the blessing (Gal3:14), mercy (Luk1:54), the oath (Luk1:73), the covenant (Act3:25). The way in which Abraham responded to this peculiar goodness of God makes him the type of the Christian believer. Though so far in the past that he was used as a measure of antiquity (Joh8:58), he is declared to have “seen” Messiah's “day” (Joh8:56). It is his faith in the Divine promise, which, just because it was for him peculiarly unsupported by any evidence of the senses, becomes the type of the faith that leads to justification (Rom4:3), and therefore in this sense again he is the “father” of Christians, as believers (Rom4:11). For that promise to Abraham was, after all, a “preaching beforehand” of the Christian gospel, in that it embraced “all the families of the earth” (Gal3:8). Of this exalted honor, James reminds us, Abraham proved himself worthy, not by an inoperative faith, but by “works” that evidenced his righteousness (Jam2:21; compare Joh8:39). The obedience that faith wrought in him is what is especially praised by the author of Hebrews (Heb11:8, Heb11:17). In accordance with this high estimate of the patriarch's piety, we read of his eternal felicity, not only in the current conceptions of the Jews (parable, Lk 16), but also in the express assertion of our Lord (Mat8:11; Luk13:28). Incidental historical allusions to the events of Abraham's life are frequent in the New Testament, but do not add anything to this estimate of his religious significance.
Outside the Scriptures we have abundant evidence of the way that Abraham was regarded by his posterity in the Jewish nation. The oldest of these witnesses, Ecclesiasticus, contains none of the accretions of the later Abraham-legends. Its praise of Abraham is confined to the same three great facts that appealed to the canonical writers, namely, his glory as Israel's ancestor, his election to be recipient of the covenant, and his piety (including perhaps a tinge of “nomism”) even under severe testing (Ecclesiasticus 44:19-21). The Improbable and often unworthy and even grotesque features of Abraham's career and character in the later rabbinicalmidrashim are of no religious significance, beyond the evidence they afford of the way Abraham's unique position and piety were cherished by the Jews.
To Mohammed Abraham is of importance in several ways. He is mentioned in no less than 188 verses of the Koran, more than any other character except Moses. He is one of the series of prophets sent by God. He is the common ancestor of the Arab and the Jew. He plays the same role of religious reformer over against his idolatrous kinsmen as Mohammed himself played. He builds the first pure temple for God's worship (at Mecca!). As in the Bible so in the Koran Abraham is the recipient of the Divine covenant for himself and for his posterity, and exhibits in his character the appropriate virtues of one so highly favored: faith, righteousness, purity of heart, gratitude, fidelity, compassion. He receives marked tokens of the Divine favor in the shape of deliverance, guidance, visions, angelic messengers (no theophanies for Mohammed!), miracles, assurance of resurrection and entrance into paradise. He is called “Imam of the peoples” (2 118)
There are writers in both ancient and modern times who have, from various standpoints, interpreted the person and career of Abraham otherwise than as what it purports to be, namely, the real experiences of a human person named Abraham. These various views may be classified according to the motive or impulse which they believe to have led to the creation of this story in the mind of its author or authors.
Philo's tract on Abraham bears as alternative titles, “On the Life of the Wise Man Made Perfect by Instruction, or, On the Unwritten Law.” Abraham's life is not for him a history that serves to illustrate these things, but an allegory by which these things are embodied. Paul's use of the Sarah-Hagar episode inGal4:21-31 belongs to this type of exposition (compare allēgoroúmena, Gal4:24), of which there are also a few other instances in his epistles; yet to infer from this that Paul shared Philo's general attitude toward the patriarchal narrative would be unwarranted, since his use of this method is incidental, exceptional, and merely corroborative of points already established by sound reason. “Luther compares it to a painting which decorates a house already built” (Schaff, “Galatians,” Excursus).
As to Philo Abraham is the personification of a certain type of humanity, so to some modern writers he is the personification of the Hebrew nation or of a tribe belonging to the Hebrew group. This view, which is indeed very widely held with respect to the patriarchal figures in general, furnishes so many more difficulties in its specific application to Abraham than to the others, that it has been rejected in Abraham's case even by some who have adopted it for figures like Isaac, Ishmael and Jacob. Thus Meyer (Die Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstamme, 250; compare also note on p. 251), speaking of his earlier opinion, acknowledges that, at the time when he “regarded the assertion of Stade as proved that Jacob and Isaac were tribes,” even then he “still recognized Abraham as a mythical figure and originally a god.” A similar differentiation of Abraham from the rest is true of most of the other adherents of the views about to be mentioned. Hence also Wellhausen says (Prolegomena6, 317): “Only Abraham is certainly no name of a people, like Isaac and Lot; he is rather ambiguous anyway. We dare not of course on that account hold him in this connection as an historical personage; rather than that he might be a free creation of unconscious fiction. He is probably the youngest figure in this company and appears to have been only at a relatively late date put before his son Isaac.”
Urged popularly by Nöldeke (Im neuen Reich (1871), I, 508ff) and taken up by other scholars, especially in the case of Abraham, the view gained general currency among those who denied the historicity of Gen, that the patriarchs were old deities. From this relatively high estate, it was held, they had fallen to the plane of mere mortals (though with remnants of the hero or even demigod here and there visible) on which they appear in Gen. A new phase of this mythical theory has been developed in the elaboration by Winckler and others of their astral-theology of the Babylonian world, in which the worship of Abraham as the moon-god by the Semites of Palestine plays a part. Abraham's traditional origin connects him with Ur and Haran, leading centers of the moon-cult. Apart from this fact the arguments relied upon to establish this identification of Abraham with Sin may be judged by the following samples: “When further the consort of Abraham bears the name Sarah, and one of the women among his closest relations the name Milcah, this gives food for thought, since these names correspond precisely with the titles of the female deities worshipped at Haran alongside the moongod Sin. Above all, however, the number 318, that appears inGen14:14 in connection with the figure of Abraham, is convincing because this number, which surely has no historical value, can only be satisfactorily explained from the circle of ideas of the moon-religion, since in the lunar year of 354 days there are just 318 days on which the moon is visible - deducting 36 days, or three for each of the twelve months, on which the moon is invisible” (Baentsch, Monotheismus, 60f). In spite of this assurance, however, nothing could exceed the scorn with which these combinations and conjectures of Winckler, A. Jeremias and others of this school are received by those who in fact differ from them with respect to Abraham in little save the answer to the question, what deity was Abraham (see e.g. Meyer, op. cit., 252f, 256f).
Gunkel (Genesis, Introduction), in insisting upon the resemblance of the patriarchal narrative to the “sagas” of other primitive peoples, draws attention both to the human traits of figures like Abraham, and to the very early origin of the material embodied in our present book of Genesis. First as stories orally circulated, then as stories committed to writing, and finally as a number of collections or groups of such stories formed into a cycle, the Abraham-narratives, like the Jacob-narratives and the Joseph-narratives , grew through a long and complex literary history. Gressmann (op. cit, 9-34) amends Gunkel's results, in applying to them the principles of primitive literary development laid down by Professor Wundt in his Völkerpsychologie. He holds that the kernel of the Abraham-narratives is a series of fairy-stories, of international diffusion and unknown origin, which have been given “a local habitation and a name” by attaching to them the (ex hypothesi) then common name of Abraham (similarly Lot, etc.) and associating them with the country nearest to the wilderness of Judea, the home of their authors, namely, about Hebron and the Dead Sea. A high antiquity (1300-1100 bc) is asserted for these stories, their astonishing accuracy in details wherever they can be tested by extra-Biblical tradition is conceded, as also the probability that, “though many riddles still remain unsolved, yet many other traditions will be cleared up by new discoveries” of archaeology.
Taken from: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia by James Orr, M.A., D.D., General Editor