The history of the Jewish people begins in Bronze Age times in the Middle East when God promised a nomad leader called Abram that he would be the father of a great people if he did as God told him.
Jews regard Abraham (as he was later called) as the first Patriarch of the Jewish people.
Abraham was the first person to teach the idea that there was only one God; before then, people believed in many gods.
Ironically, Abraham's father, Terach, had made his living selling idols of various gods.
Abraham is a significant character in other religions - not only Christianity but Islam too.
Muslims know Abraham as Ibrahim, and regard his as an important prophet of their faith. Ibrahim's first son Ishmael, known as Isma'il, is regarded as the father of the Arab people.
Map of the locations in Abraham's story
The story of Abraham and his descendents is found in the book of Genesis. We first meet him in Genesis chapter 11, although at this stage his name is Abram. There is very little biographical detail about him apart from the fact that he was a shepherd and came from Ur in Mesopotamia - modern day Iraq - after which he and his family moved, with his father Terah, to Haran.
This is a polytheistic age, an age when people believed in and worshipped many gods. Yet within this atmosphere, Abram answers the call of God and it is because of this that he accepts and realises the reality of there being only one true God.
In the Jewish tradition called Midrash (a Hebrew word which means 'interpretation' and relates to the way readings or biblical verses are understood), there are a number of stories about Abraham smashing his father's idols when he realises that there can be only one God of heaven and earth. It doesn't matter whether the stories are true or not. They acknowledge that Abraham was the first person to recognise and worship the one God. And so, monotheism was born.
At the beginning of Genesis chapter 12, God asked Abram to leave his home and country and he makes Abram three promises: the promise of a relationship with God, numerous descendents and land.
I will make you a great nation
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you will be a blessing
I will bless those who bless you,
And whoever curses you I will curse;
And all the peoples of the earth
Will be blessed through you
The only problem is that both Abram and his wife, Sarai (later called Sarah) are old people and childless. They will have to leave their homeland and they don't even know who this God is! They seem to be an almost impossible set of promises for God to keep. But the amazing fact about Abram is that he does what he is asked. There are no signs or miracles; he has no scriptures or traditions on which to draw, so Abram has to place his trust in this nameless God. Consequently, Abram has gone down in history as a man of tremendous faith. As a result of his obedience, God changes his name to Abraham, meaning 'father of the people'.
The ultimate test of Abraham's obedience, however, comes in Genesis 22 when he is asked to sacrifice his son by Sarah - Isaac. God had promised that Abraham's descendents would come through Isaac, so the level of faith he displays is quite astonishing. Abraham trusts God and takes his son, as directed, up a mountain. At the very last minute, God intervenes and spares Isaac's life by providing another animal (a ram) for sacrifice. The test is complete and God once more reiterates his promises to Abraham of land, descendents and a personal relationship.
According to the Bible, Abraham is humanity's last chance to establish a relationship with God. At the beginning of the Bible in the creation narratives, Adam and Eve set in train a pattern of disobedience to God's commands which takes root. Even after the Great Flood, in which only Noah was saved, humanity once again comes perilously close to alienating themselves from their creator God. They build the tower of Babel (Genesis 11), a tower that seems like it will almost break through to the heavens and God again intervenes and scatters the people across the earth.
Many scholars believe these stories were written to explain to people why the world is like it is and why humans are like they are. What is our place in the world? Why do we die? They address questions of life and death, rather than being simply explanations about how the world was created.
At the end of Genesis 11, we are provided with a genealogy and Abraham becomes the new hope through which God will try and create a people to live by a certain set of values. The important thing to learn here is the uniqueness of the Covenant relationship between God and Abraham. For the first time, we see the beginning of a two-way relationship: God doing something for Abraham, and Abraham doing something for God. The blessings of God are passed on from one generation to another.
The story of Abraham is about obedience to the will of God - not blind obedience, because the Bible stories tell us that Abraham frequently challenged God and asked questions. But in the end, he trusted this God who had made such extraordinary promises and in so doing formed a very special and personal relationship with God which, believers will argue, has continued through to the present day.
Uniting three faiths
Peter Stanford, writer and journalist ©
Abraham is an extraordinary figure in that almost alone of the Biblical characters he unites, or has the potential to unite, the three great monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. He's there in all of them - he's important in all of them. In the Christian mass Abraham is mentioned specifically; when Muslims pray five times a day, they mention Abraham in that connection; and when Jews look back in the Torah, particularly to the covenant they made with Yahweh that made them Yahweh's chosen people, that was done through Abraham. He's the father of all faiths.
There's a great movement going on, and particularly in the wake of September the 11th in the States, where Christians, Jews and Muslims get together in 'Abraham Salons' to talk about Abraham. The idea is that in this world where we're terribly divided in faith, we will find a way forward through Abraham. There's hope that he will bring these warring religious factions together. It's a lovely idea, and I think there's a lot of mileage in it. Abraham does have that uniting role.
But I think the flip side of it, and unfortunately with religion there usually is a flip side, is that there are things about Abraham which emphasise the division of the different faiths. For instance, Judaism and Islam can't even agree which of Abraham's sons it was that he offered in sacrifice. And most significantly, if Abraham is put in a political context, the Torah says that it was Abraham who received the covenant from Yahweh on behalf of the Jewish people, it made them the Chosen People, that Jews will say 'Because of Abraham, Jerusalem and the Holy Land is ours - God has given it to us.'
But of course in Islam, it's Abraham who is the first person who surrenders to Allah - and the very word 'Islam' means 'surrender' - so he's an incredibly significant figure in Islam as well. From Islam's point of view, that surrender by Abraham, which again took place in that narrow disputed bit of land, means that Jerusalem and the Holy Land is for Islam. So despite Abraham being someone who can unite religions there are also elements that emphasise the divisions.
Peter Stanford, writer and journalist
The significance of Abraham's age
Reverend John Bell ©
The lovely thing for me about Abraham is that he's an old man and he is one of several old people who indicate that God is not simply interested in young folk but that God has a peculiar calling to old people. It's interesting that later in the Bible, in Joel "...the young will see visions and the old will dream dreams..." and it's the middle aged who really have to watch out.
Right at the beginning, the story of Abraham says that God does not give up on old people and God does not give up in situations that look barren. Both Abraham and Sarah have got to their final years and for them to be the progenitors is a colossal thing.
The relationship that Abraham has with Sarah is very interesting, she's a bit of an odd puss, she can be quite nippy, particularly in her relationship with Abraham's concubine Hagar. She also does a great thing in giving God a name that has not been mentioned before - God's been seen as a creator and she gives God the name Laughter Maker because when her child is born she calls him Isaac which means 'he laughs'. She says 'I'll call him Isaac because God has made laughter for me.' She gives us a picture of God that nobody else gives: that in God's heart there is humour and there's laughter and that he gives that as a gift to humanity.
Reverend John Bell, a leader in the Iona Community and minister of the Church of Scotland
Genesis, Robert Alter (Ed), pub: W W Norton (1998)
Voices from Genesis: Guiding us through the stages of life, Norman J Cohen, pub: Jewish Lights Publishing (1999)
Abraham: A journey to the heart of three faiths, Bruce Feiler, pub: William Morrow and Company (2002)
The Pentateuch - A story of beginnings, Paula Gooder, pub: Continuum International Publishing (2000)
The Oxford Guide to People and Places of the Bible, Bruce Metzger; George L Collard; Michael Coogan (Eds), pub: Oxford University Press (2001)
Find out more
- Muslim view of Abraham
In Jewish tradition Abraham became identified as the 'first Jew'. He is depicted as the embodiment of the faithful Jew upholding God's commandments. Traditionally, Jews see themselves as the descendants of Abraham through his son Isaac and Jacob, his grandson.What religions is Abraham mentioned in? ›
Because Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all recognize Abraham as their first prophet, they are also called the Abrahamic religions. While there was always a small community of Jews in historic Palestine, in 73 C.E.What are some facts about Abraham in Judaism? ›
Jews regard Abraham (as he was later called) as the first Patriarch of the Jewish people. Abraham was the first person to teach the idea that there was only one God; before then, people believed in many gods. Ironically, Abraham's father, Terach, had made his living selling idols of various gods.Why is Abraham's covenant important in Judaism? ›
The significance of the covenant
Through the covenant, Abraham became the first human to reject false gods in favour of the one true God. Jews believe that the covenant between God and Abraham extends to all Jews. It was the start of the relationship between God and the Jewish people.
Abraham was the first Hebrew patriarch and is revered in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. According to the Bible, he was called by God to journey to a new land, where he founded a new nation.Why is Abraham called the Hebrew? ›
While the similarity is suggestive, nothing specifically links Eber with Hebrew or Hebrews. Another tradition has it that Abraham is called "the Hebrew" (ha-'ivri) because he came from "across the river" (the Euphrates). "Across" is me'ever, again using the same root.What religion did Abraham teach? ›
Abraham was the first of the Hebrew patriarchs and a figure revered by the three great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.What religion is Abraham a prophet? ›
Abraham (originally Abram) is the common Hebrew patriarch of the Abrahamic religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.Why is Abraham considered the father of all religions? ›
Historically, Abraham became known as “The Father of Many Nations” through a promise given to him by God. Throughout history, he has been venerated by three different religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was Abraham's faith in the “one true living God” that has built kingdoms and divided nations.What did God ask Abraham to do? ›
Command to Sacrifice
One day when Isaac was a boy, God came to Abraham and told him to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah. Though he loved his son dearly, he did not hesitate to obey the Lord. The very next day, Abraham saddled his donkey and began the journey, with Isaac, two servants, and wood for the sacrifice.
According to one view, Abraham remarried after the death of Sarah and had a total of three wives: Sarah, Hagar, and Keturah. Another tradition identifies Keturah with Hagar, and thus Abraham married only twice.How old was Abraham when God called him? ›
Abram was 86 years old when Ishmael was born. When Abram was 99 years old, the Lord spoke to him once more. The Lord said, "Between you and Me I will establish my covenant, and I will multiply you exceedingly. "My covenant is this: you are to become the father of a host of nations."What are the three parts of the Abrahamic covenant? ›
- the promised land.
- the promise of the descendants.
- the promise of blessing and redemption.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty ; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers." "As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations.Why is Abraham called the father of all nations? ›
Historically, Abraham became known as “The Father of Many Nations” through a promise given to him by God. Throughout history, he has been venerated by three different religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It was Abraham's faith in the “one true living God” that has built kingdoms and divided nations.How old was Abraham when God promised him a son? ›
Genesis 18:9-15; 21:1-7
Abram and Sarai had no children, yet God promised to make Abram's name great. Later, when Abram was 99 years old, God promised that He would “multiply thee exceedingly.” God changed his name from Abram, meaning “exalted father,” to Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude.”
Sarah, also spelled Sarai, in the Old Testament, wife of Abraham and mother of Isaac. Sarah was childless until she was 90 years old. God promised Abraham that she would be “a mother of nations” (Genesis 17:16) and that she would conceive and bear a son, but Sarah did not believe.