Abraham is the founder of the Jewish nation, the patriarch who settled in the land of Israel. Yet as the first ethical monotheist, he is father to Christians and Muslims as well.
According to Genesis (Bereishit), the first book of the Hebrew Bible, Abraham (Avraham in Hebrew) was born Abram in Ur Kasdim in the Chaldees (Mesopotamia) in the early 2nd millenium BCE.
Archaeologists now guess that Ur may have been Tel al-Muqayyar, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad. Others suggest that Kasdim stands for Kaldu, a town mentioned in an ancient Assyrian (cuneiform) text excavated at Mari on the River Euphrates.
Abram's crucial break with paganism started when he smashed the idols of his father, Terah. Indeed, his whole life was a series of revelations of the oneness of God.
At first Abram and his wife Sarai settled at Harran, in the Balikh Valley, now Turkey. Like many people of his day, they were nomads. When he was 75, Abram heard God telling him to found a new nation in faraway Canaan. He journeyed from Yamhad (modern Aleppo), Bashan (Hawran) and Shechem (Balata near Nablus) to Bethel (Baytin, north of Jerusalem) and the Negev.
To mark his life of faith, his name became Abraham (gaining the Hebrew letter hey from the name of God). Likewise Sarai became Sarah, meaning ‘princess’.
Abraham had a son, Ishmael, by his maidservant, Hagar. Yet in the original Jewish account (unlike the rewriting in the Muslim Qur’an), his legitimate son and heir was Isaac, progeny of Sarah herself, whom Abraham produced at 100 years of age.
To test his faith in God, Abraham was instructed to sacrifice Isaac. Reluctantly yet loyally, he agreed to do so. At the last moment God substituted a ram for the boy. The symbolism of The Binding or Akedah is a crucial motif in Jewish lore.
Abraham was a dominant, patriarchal figure. He commanded a troop of camp followers, including his nephew Lot, and even chose a wife for Isaac: Rebecca. At Mamre near Hebron, his journey reaches its spiritual apogee as he swears by “Lord God Most High”. Some scholars say that this appellation synthesises the Jewish Yahweh with the Canaanite El Elyon.
It is notable that Abraham's relationship with God is both intensely personal (Abraham is called the friend of God) and also tribal. In this regard, the act of circumcision represents a covenant between God and Abraham's children, Isaac, forebear of the Jews; and possibly also Ishmael, father of the Arabs.
Abraham buried Sarah at the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, said to be the first plot of Canaanite land bought by a Jew. Abraham himself died at the age of 175 and was buried there too. It is still a holy site for Jews and Muslims alike.
Much has been written about Abraham, both in the Bible and elsewhere. We learn that he is a man of passion and enormous generosity. Yet the essential Abraham remains a figure of some mystery.