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The Evolution of Abraham

January-February 2004

We first meet Abraham in Genesis 11. Abraham, a descendant of Noah through his son Shem, lived with his family in the city of Ur in Chaldea (today's Iraq). Having left Ur with his father, Terah, his wife, Sarah, and his nephew, Lot, Abraham stayed for a time in Haran, where Terah died. But the story begins in earnest in Genesis 12:

Now the Lord said to Abram [as he was at first called], "Go forth from your country and from your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; and I will make your name great, so that it will be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you will I curse, and all the families of the land will be blessed because of you."

Genesis 12:1-3

 

Readers of the Bible have always wondered what it was that caused Abraham to receive these lavish promises from God; what exactly had he done so far to deserve them? In searching for an answer, interpreters were struck by this verse in the Book of Joshua:

And Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: 'Your ancestors lived of old beyond the Euphrates: Terah, the father of Abraham and of Nahor; and they served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan.'"

Joshua 24:2-3

 

This idea came to be elaborated by the ancient interpreters:

This people [the Jews] is descended from the Chaldeans. At one time they lived in Mesopotamia, because they would not follow the gods of their fathers who were in Chaldea. For they had left the ways of their ancestors, and they worshiped the God of heaven, the God they had come to know; hence they [the Chaldeans] drove them out from the presence of their gods and they fled to Mesopotamia, and lived there for a long time. Then their God commanded them to leave the place where they were living and go to the land of Canaan.

The Book of Judith 5:6-9 (possibly second century B.C.E.)

 

And the child [Abraham] began to realize the errors of the land—that everyone was going astray after graven images and after impurity....And he began to pray to the Creator of all so that He might save him from the errors of mankind....And he said to his father, "What help or advantage do we have from these idols...? Worship the God of heaven."....And his father said to him: "Be silent my son, lest they kill you."

Jubilees 11:16-17, 12:2, 6-7 (second century B.C.E.)

 

He thus became the first person to argue that there is a single God who is the creator of all things....Because of these ideas the Chaldeans and the other people of Mesopotamia rose up against him, and having resolved, in keeping with God's will and with His help, to leave his home, he settled in the land of Canaan.

Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 1.154-157 (first century C.E.)