Abraham, father of his people
Abram/Abraham, husband of Sarah, was a wealthy trader and herdsman. His God was a single universal creative power with whom Abraham had a special relationship
Sarai/Sarah: wife of Abraham, alpha woman in the tribe, seemed unable to have children. She gave her Egyptian slave to Abraham so the girl could bear him a son. Later Sarah had a son of her own
Hagar: An Egyptian slave who became a secondary wife to Abraham and bore his son, Ishmael
Lot: nephew of Abram, son of Abram’s brother Haran
Ishmael: son of Hagar and elder son of Abraham
Isaac: son of Sarah and Abraham
Abram (Abraham) searches for a homeland
Abram was convinced he had a unique relationship with his God, who had told him to leave his native country and set out on a long journey.
Where this journey would lead, Abraham did not know, but he believed that God would guide him and show him where to go.
So he set out with his brother Lot and his wife Sarai, with their flocks and all the possessions the camels could carry. This suggests they were nomads even before God’s call.
What was the Promised Land?
Eventually they arrived in a foreign land, Canaan. There God came to him and told him that the land he now stood on would belong to him and to descendants.
As a way of putting his footprint on the land, Abram built an altar of thanksgiving. Then when the pasture for his flocks ran out, he moved on to the hill-country east of Bethel, journeying by stages toward the Negev.
Luck, for the moment, was not on his side. The land was barren and stricken by a famine. So Abram kept on heading south to Egypt.
Read Genesis 12:1-5
Abram tricks Pharaoh
As he travelled nearer and nearer Egypt, this sophisticated ancient civilization, Abraham began to worry. His wife Sarai was very beautiful, and Abram knew men would look at her, want her, and maybe think of killing him so they could have her.
So he asked Sarai, his legal wife, to pretend she was his sister.
It was a cunning move. The Egyptians would court Abram to win her favour. That way they might stand a chance with Sarai.
Abraham hit the jackpot. Pharaoh’s courtiers saw Sarai’s voluptuous beauty and told the Pharaoh (possibly Ramesses II, see image at right) about her. Without further ado the all-powerful Pharaoh took Sarai as a wife.
Abram’s plan had worked, and he did well out of it. He was given sheep, cattle, donkeys, camels, and male and female slaves.
Pharaoh realizes he’s been tricked
But then Pharaoh began to be plagued by bad luck, and he found out about the trick Abram had played on him. He was quite justifiably annoyed, and gave Sarai back to Abram – but allowed him to keep the gifts, which made Abram rich.
Abram then headed north, up towards the Negev (see map further up the page) and then by stages to Bethel.
He and his brother Lot now had too large a flock of animals to feed together, so they split up, Abram settling near Hebron in Canaan while Lot lived among the cities of the plain, pitching his tent near Sodom.
Read Genesis 12:10-19, 14:11-16
What was God’s Covenant with Abram?
At this stage, God made a covenant with Abram: that his descendants should have the land from the river of Egypt (the Nile) to the river Euphrates, and the territory in between.
The problem was that Abram had no children, so how was he to have descendants?
Sarai thought she had a solution. She would give her slave girl Hagar to Abram to be a surrogate mother, bearing a son who would be raised by Sarai and Abram as their heir.
Things went well at first. Hagar became pregnant, but Sarai became jealous and the two women quarrelled. There was a power struggle, and Sarai won – Hagar was ejected into the harsh desert to die.
God had other plans. He sent an angel to save Hagar, and she eventually bore Abram’s son, who was called Ishmael.
At about this time God renewed the covenant made with Abram, making certain changes.
- Henceforth Abram was to be called Abraham, and Sarai his wife would be called Sarah.
- Every male in the tribe was to have the skin of his foreskin removed.
- Sarah would bear a son, even though she was well past child-bearing age.
- This son would be Abraham’s heir, even though Ishmael would also inherit and have many heirs.
That very day, Abraham circumcised all the men of the tribe.
Read Genesis 16:1-6
Abraham, Sarah & the angels
Sarah seemed to know nothing of all this. One day three visitors approached the tent of Abraham. They were not ordinary travellers, but angels or spirits of some kind (see Angels in the Bible: what are they? for more on this).
Abraham treated these beings with great hospitality, but when Sarah heard them talking about her future, and how she would bear a son, she laughed to herself, since she had long since stopped menstruating and Abraham was a very old man.
The angels heard her laughter, and were offended. ‘Is anything impossible for God?’ they asked. Though Sarah would have regretted her laughter, it was too late to take it back.
Angels at Sodom and Gomorrah
Then the angels/spirits continued on their way, down towards Sodom and Gomorrah. They were going to destroy these cities, they told Abraham – who was understandably concerned, since his brother Lot lived there.
At this stage the story hives off and describes what happened in these two cities of sin.
The angels went to Lot’s house, and he offered them hospitality. But the men of the city had seen them, and wanted to have sexual intercourse with them.
Lot and the angels were able to repel them, but the angels warned Lot to quit the city immediately, since they were about to destroy it. ‘Flee for your lives’ they said. ‘Do not look back or stop anywhere. Flee to the hills.’
Lot could not budge his sons-in-law, but he gathered up his wife and daughters and spirited them out of the city. They family dashed away just as fire and brimstone began to rain on the city.
But Lot’s wife: (what was her sin?) looked back, and she turned into a pillar of salt.
Read Genesis 17:1-8, 18:1-5
Sarah and Abraham have a son at last
Then, miracle of miracles, God allowed Sarah to conceive and she had a son.
But there was no happy ending. When it came time for her son to be weaned, she became angry and jealous of Hagar’s son Ishmael, and had Hagar and Abraham’s son Ishmael expelled from the tribe.
Abraham allowed this to happen, even though he knew that his son Ishmael had virtually no chance of survival in the desert.
Again God intervened, and sent an angel to show Hagar where to find water so that she and Ishmael survived.
Abraham’s second son Isaac grew up, and was Abraham’s pride and joy. But it seems almost as if, after all the unworthy things that Abraham had done, that God was not sure He had made the right choice, for God now set a test for Abraham.
He asked for the life of Abraham’s son Isaac.
The sacrifice of a favoured child may have been a way of showing loyalty to one’s God. See Human sacrifice in the Bible: did it happen? how was it done?
Read Genesis 21:1-7
God, Abraham & the sacrifice of Isaac
Abraham agreed. We are told nothing of the anguish he must have felt.
He rose early the next morning, saddled his donkey, and set off with his son Isaac towards the distant mountain where the deed must be done.
Where was Sarah? Did she know what Abraham intended to do? We don’t know.
When Abraham got to the designated place of sacrifice, Isaac spoke up.
‘Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ asked Isaac.
‘God will provide one, my son’ replied Abraham.
Or here’s a thought: is it ‘God will provide one: my son’?
Together, the father and son built an altar and placed the wood they had brought on top of it.
Then Abraham bound Isaac with a rope and lay him upon the altar. Did Isaac struggle? We don’t know. In one horrific moment Abraham raised the knife to kill his son, but suddenly he heard a voice telling him to stop.
‘Now I know you have not withheld your only son from me’, said a voice.
Then Abraham saw a ram nearby. It was caught in a bush, and Abraham pulled it out and sacrificed it instead. He had passed the crucial test. (See Bible Archaeology for information on the ram in the thicket.)
Abraham returned to Sarah with Isaac.
Did she know what had happened? Did Isaac tell her? Or Abraham? We are never told.
Read Genesis 22:1-13
What did Abraham do then?
Later, he arranged a marriage for Isaac. When Sarah died he bought a burial cave for her, where he himself was later buried. It became a famous place of pilgrimage.
What is not talked about much is the information in Genesis 25. You may not even have heard of it. Abraham had another wife, Keturah, who had six sons.
These young men were less favoured than Isaac. They received gifts from Abraham, but were sent away to the east.
Isaac was always the favoured son. He received all Abraham’s property when Abraham joined Sarah in their joint tomb at Machpelah.
Read Genesis 25:1-8