The Glossary of Terms



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Abraham (Heb., ‘father of a multitude’), a Hebrew patriarch and an important figure in three living religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Earlier known as Abram (Heb., ‘exalted father’) he is perceived as the patriarch of several peoples from the regions of Palestine. He is called ‘the father of many nations’ (Gen. 17:5) and the friend of God (2 Chron. 20:7).

The biblical account moves from Mesopotamia to Palestine. The genealogy of Abraham (Gen. 11:10-32) places him in Ur. He then receives divine instructions to leave (Gen. 12:1-8). This is followed by the story of Sarah and Abraham in jeopardy (Gen. 12:10-13:1). Next follows the tale contrasting Abraham and Lot (an ethnological story, meant to demonstrate the character and origin of the Moabites and Edomites; Gen. 13:2-18). The story then moves to an enigmatic episode about an alliance of eastern kings (Gen. 14:1-24). The subsequent birth of Ishmael, the son of Abraham by his wife’s servant, Hagar, is followed by a story about the origin of circumcision (Gen. 17:27). The ethnological tale that began in Gen. 13 continues (Gen. 18-19). Another story of Abraham and Sarah in jeopardy in Gerar occurs in Gen. 20:1-18. The birth of Isaac (Gen. 21:1-21) is told next, followed closely by the story of the substitution of a ram for the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen. 22). The story of Abraham’s purchase of burial property (Gen. 23:1-20) is then followed by an account of his death (Gen. 25:1-18).

The place of Abraham in the history of the ancient Near East is difficult to assess. The stories are by their nature family tales with little material that would have been included in the public records. Some scholars maintain that there was a historical Abraham; others generally maintain that Abraham is an eponymous figure, a person whose name is taken for a people. However, there has been an attempt to date the material and uncover the historical Abraham by locating a time when the culture and customs presumed in the stories in Genesis prevailed in the ancient Near East. Several alternatives have been proposed.

One of these is that the patriarchs date from the Early Bronze Age (3000-2000 b.c.) as evidenced by the appearance of similar names in the Ebla material which originates in that period. A more popular alternative has been to date the material to the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1500 b.c.), ‘the Patriarchal Age.’ This theory is based on several factors: there is correspondence between the biblical names and Amorite personal names of that period; Middle Bronze Age I (2000-1900 b.c.) represents a nonurban period that would make the types of migrations recounted in the Genesis text more plausible; there are references to khapiru and Benjamin in the Mari texts which also come from this period; and the customs in the Abraham story are found in the Mari texts as well.

John Van Seters argues that all of the above, with the exception of the Mari material, can be found much later, hence the stories could be Late Bronze Age (1500-1200 b.c.) or Iron Age I (1200-900 b.c.). Thomas Thompson argues that, because of the nature of the document (i.e., the Bible) in which the accounts of Abraham appear, the historical issues cannot be satisfactorily resolved. Albrecht Alt maintains that in the growth of Hebrew religion the relationship between Abraham and God could be construed under the general theme of the ‘God of the Fathers’ (see Exod. 2:24; 3:6, 13, 15; 4:5; 6:3, 8; Lev. 26:42; Deut. 30:20). Abraham becomes that person who is both the advocate with God and the pioneer in faith.

The early Christian writings represent Abraham as the patriarch (Matt. 1:1, 2, 17; 3:9). Abraham as patriarch becomes a symbol of compassion (Luke 16:19-31) and the one who legitimates (John 8:33-38). However, the most prominent theme in the nt with regard to Abraham depicts him as the pioneer of trust in God (Acts 7:2-50; Rom. 4:1-25; Gal. 3:1-29; Heb. 7:1-10; 6:13-14; 11:8, 11).


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Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer
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