Historical Abraham

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20120502-Testing_of_Abrahams Faith.jpg
Testing of Abraham's Faith
Abraham is perhaps the world’s most revered religious figure. He is regarded as the ancient patriarch of Islam, the first patriarch of Judaism and an ancestor of Jesus. He was the first man to preach the existence of only one God, and that is why he is revered so deeply by Jews, Christians and Muslims, which together make more than three billion people, more than half of all of humanity. [Sources: David Van Biema, Time, September 2002; Tad Szulc, National Geographic, December, 2001; Kenneth MacLeish, National Geographic, December 1966 ♪]

According to the BBC: “The history of the Jewish people begins in Bronze Age times in the Middle East when God promised a nomad leader called Abram that he would be the father of a great people if he did as God told him. Jews regard Abraham (as he was later called) as the first Patriarch of the Jewish people. Abraham was the first person to teach the idea that there was only one God; before then, people believed in many gods. Ironically, Abraham's father, Terach, had made his living selling idols of various gods. Abraham is a significant character in other religions - not only Christianity but Islam too. Muslims know Abraham as Ibrahim, and regard his as an important prophet of their faith. Ibrahim's first son Ishmael, known as Isma'il, is regarded as the father of the Arab people. [Source: BBC ]

Reverend John Bell, a minister of the Church of Scotland, wrote for the BBC: “The lovely thing for me about Abraham is that he's an old man and he is one of several old people who indicate that God is not simply interested in young folk but that God has a peculiar calling to old people. It's interesting that later in the Bible, in Joel "...the young will see visions and the old will dream dreams..." and it's the middle aged who really have to watch out. Right at the beginning, the story of Abraham says that God does not give up on old people and God does not give up in situations that look barren. Both Abraham and Sarah have got to their final years and for them to be the progenitors is a colossal thing. [Source: BBC]

Time Period in Which Abraham Lived

Jewish history begins during the Bronze age in the Middle East. The birth of the Jewish people and the start of Judaism is told in the first 5 books of the Bible. God chose Abraham to be the father of a people who would be special to God, and who would be an example of good behaviour and holiness to the rest of the world. God guided the Jewish people through many troubles, and at the time of Moses he gave them a set of rules by which they should live, including the Ten Commandments. [Source: BBC]

Abraham in a Filippino church

2000-1750 B.C.: Old Babylonian period
2000-1700 B.C.: Israel's Patriarchal period
ca. 1900-1400 B.C.: Old Assyrian period
1882 B.C.: Terach born
1813 B.C.: Abraham born
ca. 1850/1750/1700 B.C.: Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Ishmael, famine forces Israelites to migrate to Egypt [Source: Jewish Virtual Library, UC Davis, Fordham University]

1800 B.C.: First Jerusalem city wall built
ca. 1792-1750 B.C.: Hammurabi
ca. 1750-1200 B.C.: Hittite empire
1765 B.C.: The Tower of Babel 1743 B.C.: Origin of traditions of the "Abrahamic covenant"
1713 B.C.: Isaac born; Abraham circumcises himself; Sodom & Gomorrah destroyed
ca. 1700-1550 B.C.: Hyksos in Egypt
1677 B.C.: Isaac prepared as sacrifice; Sarah dies
1653 B.C.: Jacob born
1638 B.C.: Abraham dies

ca. 1600-1150 B.C.: Kassite period (Babylonia)
1590 B.C.: Isaac blesses Jacob instead of Esau.
ca. 1570-1085 B.C.: New Kingdom period (Egypt)
1569 B.C.: Jacob marries Leah
1565 B.C.: Levi born
1562 B.C.: Joseph born
1546 B.C.: Joseph sold into slavery
1533 B.C.: Isaac dies
1532 B.C.: Joseph becomes viceroy of Egypt
1523 B.C.: Jacob and his family join Joseph in Egypt
ca. 1500-1200 B.C.: Ugaritic texts
1452 B.C.: Joseph dies

Historical Abraham

There is no direct archaeological evidence of the existence of the Abraham or references to him in ancient texts outside the Bible. There is evidence that rulers and people that Abraham encountered existed (but critics claim they are too widely dispersed in time to make Abraham’s existence plausible). Skeptics claim Abraham is a fictional character created to bring glory and honor to the tribes that created him.

Abraham lived when the Middle East was dominated by the early kingdoms of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Many of the places associated with Abraham mentioned in the Bible, such as Haran, Ur, Shechem, Ai and Hebron have been located by archaeologists and some are still occupied today.

Melchizedek and Abraham

The Bible also contains what appear to be factual errors. In Chapter, Abraham visits the "the land of the Philistines" who did not arrive in Canaan from Crete until 400 years after Abraham is said to have existed. In Chapter 24, Abraham's servant is taken away by a retinue with 10 camels to find a bride but camels weren't introduced to region until around 1000 B.C.

For many believers it is really here nor there if concrete evidence of Abraham exists or not. A rabbi in Hebron told National Geographic, “For me Abraham is philosophy. Abraham is culture. Abraham may or may not be historical. Abraham is a message of loving kindness. Abraham is an idea. Abraham is everything. I don’t need flesh and blood.”

Estimates of Abraham’s birth year vary widely. From the best that can be determined Abraham — if he indeed existed — was born around 1800 B.C., although scholars have suggested a range of dates between 2100 B.C. and 700 B.C. Those that argue for the 2100 B.C. date point to references to Ur, which thrived in the 3rd millennium B.C. Those that favor the 700 B.C. date point to the camels and a mention of the Chaldeans in Mesopotamia, which did not appear in Mesopotamia until late in the first millennium B.C. Other scholars say the presence of camels and Chaldeans doesn’t mean much because they were probably added by biblical writers at the time they wrote it and are irrelevant for dating purposes.


Ur (eight kilometers, five miles from Nasiriyah, Iraq, near the town of Muqaiyir) ) was a great Mesopotamian city and the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Founded in the 5th millennium B.C., it covers around 120 acres and was originally on the Euphrates River, which now lies several miles to the north.

The Bible refers to “Ur of the Chaldees” as the place where Abraham lived before heading off to Canaan. Archaeologists have said their isn’t much evidence that the Mesopotamian Ur was the one mentioned in the Bible. A house said to belong to Abraham was built by Saddam Hussein after Pope John Paul II said he in the 1990s he interested in visiting it.

The Ur’s ziggurat is a pyramid-like brick tower built in 2100 B.C. as a tribute to Sin, the moon god. It originally rose 65 feet from a base measuring 135 by 200 feet and had three platforms, each a different color, and a silver shrine at the top. About a third of it remains. Reaching a height of about 50 feet, it looks sort of like a castle wall filled in with dirt and ascended by a staircase. Some regard best preserved structure similar to the Tower of Babel.

References to Abraham of Ur in Mesopotamian Tablets

Abraham hired an ox, Abraham leased a farm, Abraham paid part of his rent, how Abraham — Abraham of Ur of Chaldees — might have moved to Canaan are all texts derived from Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets. The Abraham referred to here is probably not of the Biblical Abraham but the texts on the tablets offers some insight into life during Abraham’s time. The Biblical Abraham had a different father and worshipped only one god. [Source: Fertile Crescent Travel, George Barton, Archaeology and the Bible 7th edition, American Sunday-School Union. p. 344-345]

Abraham Leased a Farm
To the patrician speak,
Saying, Gimil-Marduk (wishes that)
Shamash and Marduk may give thee health!
Mayest thou have peace, mayest thou have health!
May the god who protects thee thy head in luck
(To enquire) concerning thy health I am sending.
May thy welfare before Shamash and Marduk
be eternal!
Concerning the 400 shars of land, the field of Sin-idinam,
Which to Abamrama
To lease, thou hast sent;
The land-steward (?) the scribe
Appeared and
On behalf of Sin-idinam
I took that up.
The 400 shars of land to Abamrama
as thou hast directed
I have leased.
Concerning thy dispatches I shall not be negligent.

Ziggarat of Ur Today

Abraham Paid His Rent 1 Shekel of silver
of the rent (?) of his field,
for the year Ammizadugga, the king,
a lordly, splendid statu (set up),
and Iddatum
Month Siman, 28th day,
The year Ammizadugga, the king,
a lordly, splendid statu (set up) [Note: This was Amizadugga's 13th year. Abraham is reported as paying part of his rent two years after he hired an ox]

Abraham of Ur Buys an Oxen and Travels to Palestine

Abraham Hired an Ox: One ox broken to the yoke,
An ox from Ibri-sin, son of Sin-imgurani,
From Ibni-sin
through the agency of Kishti-Nabium,
son of Eteru,
Abarama, son of Awel-Ishtar,
for one month has hired.
For one month
one shekel of silver
he will pay.
Of it 1/2 shekel of silver
from the hand of
has received.
In the presence of Idin-Urash, son of Idin-Labibaal,
In the presence of Awele, son of Urri-bani,
in the presence of Beliyatum, scribe.
Month of the mission of Ishtar (i.e., Ammizadugga's 11th year).
The year of Ammizadugga, the king (built)
The wall of Ammizadugga, (i.e., Ammizadugga's 11th year).
[Source: Tablet of Kisti-Nabium, copy made for Kishti-Nabium, the agent, 1965 B.C., Ammizadugga was the tenth king of that first dynasty of Babylon, of which Hammurabi was the sixth]

Mesopotamia in Abraham's Time

Travel between Babylonia and Palestine
A wagon
from Mannum-balum-Shamash,
son of Shelibia,
son of Appani[bi],
on a lease
for 1 year
has hired.
As a yearly rental
2/3 of a shekel of silver
he will pay.
As the first of the rent
1/6 of a shekel of silver
he has received.
Unto the land of Kittim
he shall not drive it.
In the presence of Ibku-Adad,
Son of Abiatum;
in the presence of Ilukasha,
son of Arad-ilishu;
in the presence of ilishu....
Month Ululu, day 25,
the year the king Erech from the flood
of the river as a frienc protected. [Notes: This tablet is dated to the time of the migration of Abraham. Kittim is used in Jeremiah 2:10 and Ezekiel 27:6 of the coast lands of the Mediterranean. The contract protects the owner's wagon from being driven the long, scenic route along the coast. This was like a mileage limit on renting a U-Haul for a time period.]

Problems with Dates and Places Associated with Abraham

Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: “Efforts to date the patriarchal period have not been particularly rewarding, for biblical chronology is complex. In the P source, 215 years pass between the time of Abraham's journey to Canaan and Jacob's migration to Egypt (see Gen. 12:4b, 21:5, 25:26, 47:9), and the period spent in Egypt is given as 430 years (Exod. 12:40 f.), making a total of 645 years before the Exodus. As we shall see, most scholars date the Exodus near the middle of the thirteenth century, so that Abraham would leave Mesopotamia at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and Jacob's journey to Egypt would occur about 1700 B.C. Unfortunately, date variations occur in some manuscripts. In the LXX, Exod. 12:40 includes time spent in both Egypt and Canaan in the 430-year period (some manuscripts read 435 years). According to this reckoning, Abraham's journey would fall in the seventeenth century and Jacob's in the fifteenth century. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968, infidels.org]

Abraham's journey

“The early nineteenth century date for Abraham places his departure from Mesopotamia at the time of the Elamite and Amorite invasion. It harmonizes with the conclusions of Nelson Glueck, who found that between the twenty-first and nineteenth centuries B.C. the Negeb was dotted with hamlets where inhabitants, having learned how to hoard water, engaged in agriculture and tended small flocks. Such settlements would provide stopping places for Abraham and his retinue.9 The seventeenth century date for Jacob's settlement in Egypt coincides with the Hyksos invasion of Egypt, lending support to Josephus' hypothesis, for Hebrews may have been part of this movement.

“The second pattern of dating would place Abraham in the time of Hammurabi of Babylon and would give strength to the argument that the mention of King Amraphel of Shinar in Gen. 14:1 is a Hebraized reference to Hammurabi. Abraham would, therefore, be in Canaan during the Hyksos period, and Joseph would have risen to power in the Amarna age. The close of the Amarna period brought to power leaders hostile to Akhenaton and possibly also to those he had favored.

“Whatever the correct date for Abraham may be, he represents the beginning of the nation to the Hebrews. Yahweh's promise to the patriarch and his successors is considered to be the guarantee of national existence (Num. 32:11). There are no references to Abraham in the writings of the eighth century prophets, for then stress was laid on the Exodus as the starting point of the nation. In the seventh and sixth centuries, and in the post-Exilic period, the Abrahamic tradition came to the fore once again.

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons, Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bible in Bildern, 1860 except timeline Biblical research Society

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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