Arabic: ibrāhīm
Hebrewavraham / avram

1. Judaism
2. Islam
3. Christianity

Abraham about to sacrifice his own son. Painting: Caravaggio.

One of the figures most central to Judaism and Islam, and also a significant theological figure for Christians.

Abraham is believed to have lived around 2000 BCE and died at the age of 175 years according to the Biblical (Old Testament) as well as Muslim sources. There are no independent sources confirming this abnormally long life span. While there is no historical or archaeological evidence for his personal existence, there is sufficient evidence that the peoples and regions described in the sources existed during this time in history.

Abraham is of great importance to Judaism because he is the forefather of the Jews, through the line of his legitimate son, Isaac.

Abraham is important to the Muslims not only because he is a prophet of the same message from God as Muhammad, but also because he erected the Ka’ba, the holiest place in earthly Islam.

For the Christians, the importance of the Jewish genealogy is less important than in Judaism, even if there are 2 attempts to construct kinship between Jesus and Abraham in the Gospels (Matthew 1,1-16 and Luke 3,23-38, where it actually is Jesus’ stepfather Joseph who is linked with Abraham, and not Mary, Jesus’ mother).

Further, Christianity emphasizes Abraham’s role as the father of faith, who believed God’s promises even when there was no evidence for them (references in Romans 4 and Hebrews 6).

In Judaism, Abraham (his name was at first Abram) is the first of the Hebrew patriarchs. A central theme in Judaism is his exodus from Ur in Mesopotamia to Canaan.

He and his tribe settled in Canaan, and from this stems the Jewish idea that all of the Middle East, between the Nile and Euphrates (covering today’s IsraelPalestineLebanonSyriaJordanIraq and eastern Egypt), is the promised land (Genesis 15,18).

The second story about Abram took place when he had to take refuge in Egypt because of a drought in Canaan. Here he gave away his wife Sarai to Pharaoh saying she is his sister. But when Pharaoh finds out that Abram has lied, Abram has to return to Canaan.

Then, it is said, that Abram and his nephew Lot divided the land of Canaan between them, Lot receiving the east, Abram the west.

Abram was worried that he had no children, so his wife Sarai gave him her maidservant, Hagar. She became pregnant and gave birth to Ishmael when Abram was 86 years old. God promised Hagar that his descendants would reach uncountable numbers.

When Abram was 99 years old, God gave him a new name, Abraham, and told him also to change the name of his wife to Sarah. The reason was that Abraham was given the promise to become the father of a large number of people through a son who should be named Isaac.

Kings would come from his kin, and there would be a pact between God and Abraham’s people. The symbol of that pact would be the circumcision of all boys at the age of 8 days. Abraham then had himself and all of his fellowmen circumcised.

But between the time of the promise and the birth of Isaac, Abraham for a second time said that Sarah is his sister. King Abimelek sent his men to bring Sarah to him to become his wife but is warned by God in a dream, telling what Abraham had not said, that she was the wife of someone else.

As promised, Isaac was born to 90-year-old Sarah and 100-year-old Abraham. Sarah made Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. In the desert, near Beer Sheeba, the two cannot find water but were saved by God, who created a water source for them (This is a story similar to that found in Islam, except for the geography – according to Islam this happened in Mecca).

Abraham was ordered to sacrifice his only remaining son to God. No reason for this demand was given, but Abraham went ahead, without telling his son anything else other than that they were going to perform a sacrifice.

At the point when Abraham was about to kill his son, God interfered, and gave him a ram instead, stating that he now knew that Abraham feared his god. Abraham then moved to Beer Sheeba.

Sarah died at the age of 127, and Abraham bought the Machpelah cave in Hebron from the local Hittites for her burial.

Abraham sent his servant to bring home a wife from native peoples for his son Isaac. He found Rebecca in Mesopotamia.

Later, Abraham married Keturah, with whom he had 6 sons: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. Abraham died at the age of 175 from natural causes and was buried in the Machpelah cave at Hebron with his wife. Here the story of Abraham ends, and the story of the Jews begins.

The Koran clearly states that Ibrahim was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but a “God-seeker” (3:60). His status is that of one of the earlier messengers of God, together with Adam, Moses, Jesus, and others. According to Muslim theology, the message of Abraham was the very same as Muhammad’s, but it would become corrupted by the Jews.

Central in the Koran is the conflict between Abraham and his father, Azar. Azar was an idolater, and Abraham turned away from him when he could not make his father follow the message of God (19:42-49).

Abraham’s mission has many parallels to Muhammad’s, and throughout the Koran the skepticism and hostility that Abraham faced when bringing the message of new teaching about one God alone to his contemporaries is related.

Relatively little is told about Abraham’s journeys in the Koran, but it says that he settled by God’s command in the place that would become the Ka’ba (22:27).

Most of the stories about Abraham in the Islamic tradition come from other sources than the Koran, and here many parallels to the life of Moses can be seen.

For example, it is said that around the time of the birth of Abraham, King Namrud had a dream about a threat to his kingdom. He introduced laws to have all pregnant women watched and their newborn sons killed. But when the mother of Abraham was examined, the child in her womb hid from the slayers’ hands, so he was spared.

As a grown man, Abraham and his men defeated Namrud, before setting out for Palestine. Other important parts of these stories tell that Abraham circumcised himself at the age of 120, and that he died at the age of 175. On the day of resurrection, Abraham will sit at the left of God, and lead the pious into Paradise.

Christianity and Judaism have the same stories about Abraham, but he plays a different role with the Christians. Abraham belongs to the old religion, at a time before Moses received the covenant, and before Judaism was transformed into Christianity through Jesus.

It would be correct to say that Abraham gives legitimacy to the traditions of Christianity, but there are no celebrations of any sort in his remembrance.

Theologically, there are many details in the Abraham story that have no substantial development in Christianity, like his being married to a half-sister Sarah (Sarai), Lot having children with his own daughters, etc.

But Abraham’s total obedience to one god is an element that lives on as the purest virtue in Christianity. Additionally, Paul (Romans 4:3 ff.), bases his argument for justification by faith on the notion that Abraham had practiced this very kind of faith in another era, “and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

The belief that Abrahamic faith preceded circumcision and the giving of the Law underlies what becomes in Paul the Christian view of righteousness coming by the force of faith alone.

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