Rembrandt's 1634 painting of Abraham, the Angel and the bound Isaac

It is a central element of Judaism that Abraham is seen as the father of the Jewish people and that through him and his descendants a covenant was transmitted to future generations.

We first meet Abram as an adult, at the end of Chapter 11 of Genesis. We are told that his father Terah journeyed with his family from Abraham’s birthplace in Ur of the Chaldees (placed by some archeologists as near Basra in modern Iraq) and then settled in Haran, which is today in Turkey near the Syrian border.

In Chapter 12, Abram becomes the central character of the narrative. G-d instructs him to leave behind all that he knows and to go to “the Land which I will show you”. If he accepts that challenge, Abram is to be blessed with a special relationship with G-d throughout his lifetime and his descendants, too, will be slated for greatness. His original name, ‘Abram’, meaning ‘exalted father’, becomes ‘Abraham’, ‘father of many’.

The Torah offers no reason why Abraham was chosen for this particular honour so Midrash, Jewish interpretation and elucidation of the Biblical texts, has provided us with possible explanations. One Midrash on Genesis recorded in the second century CE, tells the story that Abraham’s father was a manufacturer of idols, and that the child beheaded the idols and placed the hammer in the hand of the remaining idol, prompting his father to admonish him. Terah says that Abram must have done the damage since (he admits) the idols are only made of clay. Interestingly, this is a story which also appears in the Koran.

The merits of Abraham are demonstrated throughout his adult life, as described in the Biblical text:

He leaves behind everything he has known in order to begin a new civilization in an unknown land. This is an act of faith.

When his shepherds have a dispute with those of his nephew Lot, he allows Lot to choose which portion of land he will take and agrees to go in the other direction. Later, he risks his life in battle to save Lot, who has been kidnapped.

He reluctantly takes a second wife in order to fulfil his destiny, because Sarai, his first wife, is believed to be unable to have children. He loves the child from that relationship (Ishmael) and Ishmael, although later superseded by Isaac as the heir of the covenant, is bequeathed a special blessing.

He accepts the burden of circumcision even though he is a very old man by the time it is commanded of him. In return, G-d changes his name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah, meaning ‘princess’.

Even when recovering from the circumcision, he is fastidious in his duty to take care of strangers and to welcome visitors. When he sees three strangers approaching, he jumps up to greet them. This is despite the fact that he is in the Divine presence at the time. He knows that the duty to one’s fellow human-being is the priority that G-d wants.

When he is told that the city of Sodom is to be destroyed, he pleads with G-d for it to be saved if there are just 10 good people to be found there. In doing so, he ‘takes on’ G-d, saying that if G-d is to consider Himself the G-d of Justice, he would not agree to destroy the righteous along with the wicked. His arguing with G-d as an advocate for his fellow human beings is seen as the greatest measure of Abraham’s goodness.

He is prepared to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, if required. Isaac is the child miraculously born to the previously barren Sarah and destined to be the direct heir of the promise G-d has made to Abraham. This difficult and moving text (Chapter 22), known as the Binding of Isaac, is seen both as the ultimate test of Abraham’s faith and a renunciation of human sacrifice.

When his wife Sarah dies, he is heartbroken and takes great pains to ensure that she is given an appropriate burial in Hebron, on land that he purchases for future generations as a family burial place.

The Covenant

Genesis tells how G-d establishes a ‘covenant’ with Abraham to be passed on to future generations. The first statement of this special relationship appears in Chapter 12, in which Abraham promises to forego all allegiances to his previous idolatrous community and to make a new life in the “Promised Land”:

And the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you.

And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will make your name great…and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves.”

The covenant is restated in Chapter 15 with a dramatic contractual ceremony featuring a divine fire passing between sacrificial animals, and a promise that the descendants of Abraham will be restored to their land after four hundred years of slavery.

The covenant is sealed in Chapter 17, when Abraham agrees that the sign of the covenant will appear on the bodies of all his male descendants through circumcision. At the same time, G-d promises:

“And I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings will emerge from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and between you and between your seed after you throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant, to be to you for a God and to your seed after you. And I will give you and your seed after you the land of your sojournings, the entire land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and I will be to them for a God.”

Abraham’s covenant is handed on to his son, Isaac, whom G-d explicitly blesses in Chapter 26, and through him to Jacob and his descendants. In Chapter 32, Jacob wrestles with an angel. Henceforth his name becomes ‘Israel’ – ‘He who wrestles with G-d’. His descendants become “The Children of Israel”, and the land is known as “The Land of Israel”.

© Peta Jones Pellach 2006

Note: This author prefers ‘G-d’ as a reference to the Deity, in order to avoid the possibility that a print-out might be destroyed, which could be regarded as sacreligious.

The Syllabus and Learning Programs:

Students learn about:

-Abraham and the Covenant

Students learn to:

-outline the life of Abraham

-describe the Covenant with the Patriarch including the promises of a People and a Land

Teaching and learning strategies

-Describe the historical and cultural context in which Judaism began

-Discuss that Abraham was both the father of the Jewish people and the “founder” of the type of ethical monotheism that lies at the heart of the “Abrahamic Faiths” of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

-Look at the history and description of Abraham, especially the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-21; 17:1-21

Pair Work:

-List the component parts of the agreement between God and Abraham/the Hebrew people as described in the Tanach – Genesis 12:1-3,17:1-14, 26:1-5; Exodus 28:9-20

-Genesis Chapter 22 –“The Binding of Isaac”- emphasis the point that just before this episode Abraham argues with God about saving the people of Sodom Genesis 18:23 but he does not argue about the fate of his son –his faith is so strong that he believes God will be merciful.

-Students develop the timeline to show the continuation of the covenant with Jacob and the story of wrestling with the angel and being renamed “Israel”, Genesis 32:4-36:43. (See 1. Story of the Jewish People”.)