Abraham was the founder of Judaism and the
ancestor of both the Arabs and the Jews. The Arabs trace their ancestry to Abraham's
oldest son, Ishmael. The Jews consider Abraham their ancestor through another son, Isaac.
Abraham, Isaac, and Isaac's son Jacob are called the patriarchs (founding fathers) of the
Many scholars believe that Abraham lived between about 1800 and 1500 B.C. The story of his
life is told in Genesis, the first book of the Bible. During his early life, Abraham was
called Abram. He was born in the city of Ur, in ancient Mesopotamia (now mostly Iraq). The
people of Ur, like most people then, worshiped many gods. However, Abram believed in one
God. Abram left Ur and traveled west with his wife, Sarah; his nephew Lot; and other
members of his household. At God's command, he went to a land called Canaan (later called
Palestine). God told Abram that the land would belong to Abram and his descendants.
Abram settled in Canaan, where God made a covenant (special agreement) with him. The
covenant promised that Abram would have many descendants and that Canaan would be their
"everlasting possession" if they remained faithful to God (Gen. 17:4-8). To
symbolize His pledge, God changed Abram's name to Abraham, which means father of many
nations. God commanded him and all males in his family to be circumcised as a symbol of
God repeatedly promised Abraham many children. But he and Sarah remained childless.
Following a custom of the time, Sarah gave her maid Hagar to Abraham to bear him a child.
Hagar bore Abraham a son, Ishmael.
When Abraham and Sarah were very old, God promised them a son within a year. God also told
Abraham that He intended to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because nearly all
the people were wicked. Abraham pleaded with God to spare the cities for the sake of the
righteous but could not persuade Him to do so. But God saved Lot, who lived in Sodom. The
next year, Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac.
God later gave Abraham his greatest test of faith and obedience. He commanded Abraham to
sacrifice Isaac. Abraham took his son to a mountaintop, laid him on an altar, and prepared
to kill him. At the last minute, however, God intervened, stopped the killing, and
provided a ram for the sacrifice.
The Bible says Abraham died at an advanced age. According to tradition, he was buried in
the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, in what is now the West Bank region of Southwest Asia.
Contributor: Eric M. Meyers, Ph.D., Prof. of Religion, Duke Univ.