By: Menachem Posner
- His Story Is Told in the Book of Genesis
After we read about the creation of the world, the sin of Adam and Eve, how Noah survived the Great Flood and his descendants were dispersed, we are introduced to Abraham, whose story spans Genesis 11 to 25.
Oddly enough, Scripture tells us very little about the first half of his life, as the narrative picks up when G‑d commands him to leave his home and family and travel to “the land that I will show you”1 at the age of 75.2
- He Was the First of the Patriarchs
There are three “fathers” of the Jewish people: Abraham, his son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob (father of 12 sons, progenitors of the original 12 tribes).3 Abraham was considered the first Jew, having “discovered G‑d” at a young age and becoming the first to follow G‑d’s instructions.
- His Father Was Terach
We are told that Abraham was one of three boys born to Terach, a descendant of Shem, son of Noah.4 Terach was an an avid idolator,5 who sold idols to others. When one takes into account Terach’s deep investment in idol worship and his close association with the evil king Nimrod, Abraham’s turn to G‑d is all the more impressive.
- His Mother Was Amatlai
This fact comes to us by way of the Talmud,6 which lists the otherwise unknown names of many Biblical personalities. According to tradition, Nimrod, who fancied himself a god, wished to kill Abraham, and Terach hid his wife Amatlai and their son Abraham in a cave for many years.7
- His Wife Was Sarah
Abraham married Sarah, daughter of his (half8) brother, Haran.9 As Abraham embarked on a life of spreading G‑dly awareness, Sarah was his partner, teaching and guiding the women.10
- He Was a Brave Warrior
Upon hearing that his nephew Lot had been taken captive during a war, Abraham took his men (or just his trusty servant Eliezer11 ), beat the enemies, and freed the captives. Not wishing anyone other than G‑d to take credit for his material successes, Abraham refused to take any spoils from the war.12
- He Spread Awareness of G‑d
Abraham established an eshel, which the sages interpret as either an orchard to feed wayfarers or an actual inn.13 In addition to feeding people and making sure they had water to drink as they traversed the desert, Abraham would also teach them to thank G‑d for the bounty they had enjoyed, thus making sure that G‑d became known far and wide.
- He Married an Egyptian Concubine
Sarah was barren, and as the decades passed, the couple yearned for a child who could carry on their legacy. Sarah gave her maid, Hagar, who was of Egyptian descent, to Abraham, and Hagar soon became pregnant with a son, Ishmael, when Abraham was 86 years old.14 However, things did not work out well, as there was ongoing friction between Sarah and Hagar and her wayward son.15
- G‑d Changed His Name
Abraham and Sarah were originally named Abram and Sarai. Abram means “lofty father,” and indeed Abraham was aloof, removed from starting a family. Sarai means “my princess” and barren Sarah’s devotion was directed to her husband alone. In a dramatic scene, G‑d added the Hebrew letter heh (ה) to both of their names, making them Abraham, which is a contraction of words that mean “Father to a multitude of nations”16 and Sarah, which is no longer in the possessive form.17 With this, G‑d told them, they would be blessed with a child in their old age, whom they named Isaac.
- G‑d Told Him to Circumcise
G‑d gave Abraham the mitzvah of circumcision, placing a mark of the Divine covenant upon Abraham, his male descendants, and even their servants, on the eighth day of life.18
- He Hosted Angels
While Abraham was recovering from his circumcision19 (which he performed at the age of 99), three “men” came to foretell that he and Sarah would give birth within a year.20 Ever the gracious host, Abraham served them calf (tongue), bread, and milk cream under a shady tree before they shared the good news.
- He Prayed for the People of Sodom
From Abraham’s tent, the angels continued on to Sodom and Gomorra, where they were tasked with rescuing Lot and overturning the cities, which had become hotbeds of cruelty and criminality.21 When G‑d told Abraham what was about to happen, Abraham attempted to bargain (unsuccessfully) with G‑d, hoping to have the cities saved in the merit of whichever few righteous people may have lived there.22
- He Almost Sacrificed His Son
Isaac was finally born when Abraham was 100 years old.23 Yet, when G‑d told Abraham to sacrifice his son atop Mount Moria, Abraham complied without question or complaint. At the last moment, when Isaac was already bound and Abraham was about to slaughter him, G‑d sent an angel to tell him it had been a test of faith and there was no need to carry through with the sacrifice.24
- He Purchased Land in Hebron
After his beloved Sarah passed away in Hebron, Abraham purchased a cave there in which to bury her. Even though it was offered to him as a gift, Abraham insisted on paying generously.25 According to tradition, this cave, in which the patriarchs and matriarchs (with the exception of Rachel) would all be buried, was none other than the very spot where Adam and Eve were laid to rest.
- He Passed 10 Tests
The sages of the Mishnah26 tell us that during the course of Abraham’s life he passed 10 tests, proving without a shadow of a doubt that he was utterly devoted to G‑d and a worthy progenitor of G‑d’s chosen people.
- Abraham and Sarah Did a Lot of Traveling
Terach moved his family from Ur Kasdim to Charan.27 After G‑d told Abraham to travel to Canaan (and he settled in Shechem28), hunger drove them to Egypt (where Sarah was abducted by Pharaoh).29 Back in the Holy Land, he settled in Beth E-l in the south,30 before moving to Hebron.31 After rescuing his nephew Lot from captivity, he found himself in Salem (Jerusalem), where he met King Melchizedek,32 before returning to Hebron, also identified as Elone Mamre.33 Following his unsuccessful attempt to save the people of Sodom, Abraham moved south to Gerar, the capital of the Philistines (where Sarah was abducted for a second time),34 not far from where he settled next, Beer Sheba, where he hosted guests for 26 years.35 By the time Sarah passed away, she was in Hebron, and Abraham purchased land to bury her there.36 Although they apparently moved down south again by the time Isaac married,37 Abraham was buried alongside her in Hebron.38
- He Lived for 175 Years
Scripture tells us that Abraham passed away at the age of 175.39 In describing his old age, we are told that Abraham was “old, advanced in days.”40 The Chassidic masters explain that he had used each day to the fullest, maximized every opportunity for growth and advancement, and had therefore brought each day with him from This World to the Next.
- He Is the First of the 7 Shepherds
The Talmud41 lists Abraham among the 7 great men which it identifies as the “seven shepherds” mentioned in the Book of Micha.42 The Zohar43 also tells us of 7 supernal ushpizin (“guests”), who visit each day of Sukkot, with Abraham headlining the group.
1 Genesis 12:1. – 2. Genesis 12:4. 3. Talmud Berachot 16b. 4. Genesis 11:26. 5. Joshua 24:2. 6. Bava Batra 91a. 7. See Me’am Loez, end of Noach. 8. Rashi to Genesis 20:12. 9. Genesis 11:29 as interpreted by Rashi ad loc. 10. Rashi to Genesis 12:5. 11. See Rashi to Genesis 14:14. 12 Genesis 14. 13. Genesis 21:33. 14. Genesis 16:16. 15. Told in Genesis 16 and in 21. 16. Genesis 17:5. 17. Genesis 17:15 and Rashi ad loc. 18. Genesis 17:12. 19. Genesis 18:1 and Rashi ad loc. 20. Genesis 18:10. 21. Genesis 19. 22. Genesis 18:17-33. 23. Genesis 21:5. 24. Genesis 22. 25. Genesis 23. 26. Avot 5:3. 27. Genesis 11:31 28.Genesis 12:6 and Rashi ad loc. 29. Genesis 12 30. Genesis 13:3. 31. Genesis 13:18. 32. Genesis 14.33. Genesis 18:1 34. Genesis 20. 35. See Genesis 21:34 and Rashi ad loc. 36. Genesis 23. 37. Genesis 24:62 and Rashi ad loc. 38. Genesis 25:9. 39. Genesis 25:7. 40. Genesis 24:1. 41. Talmud, Sukkah 52b. 42.Micah 5:4. 43. Zohar, Emor 103b.