I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of 
heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. 

Genesis 22:17

 

The mists of legend and pre-history shroud the patriarch revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims as their earliest hero of the faith. Some scholars suggest that the Abraham of the Bible and the Quran was not a single individual, but a tribe or composite figure representing several ancient leaders whose names are lost to us. Both Jews and Arabs claim descent from Abraham; the name means “father of a multitude.”

In the Hebrew Bible, the Lord directs Abraham to “go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abraham obeys and God then gives him and his descendants the land of Canaan (modern Israel and Palestine), promising to make of Abraham’s progeny a great nation. This promise, fulfilled through Abraham’s son Isaac, is the biblical basis of the modern Israeli nation’s claim to the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. Years later, in a terrifying encounter, God tests Abraham by commanding him to slay the boy Isaac on a remote mountaintop, a command Abraham was prepared to obey until an angel stopped him at the last instant. One of the names of God in the Hebrew Bible is “the shield of Abraham.”

For Christians, Abraham is the great paragon of faith. The apostle Paul twice writes that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Abraham was right with God, Paul says, not because of any acts of obedience, but because he believed and trusted God. Paul contrasts this to what he perceived as rabbinic Judaism’s excessive legalism. All who trust God, not adherents of the law, are the true descendants of Abraham and children of God, Paul says.

Arabs trace their descent from Abraham through his older son Ishmael. Abraham is a major figure in the Quran, which portrays him as the archetypal Muslim. He boldly challenges his father to abandon his idols and worship the one true God. For this he is thrown into a blazing fire, which God miraculously cools. The Quran also includes the story of the sacrifice of Abraham’s son, who is not named but whom Muslims presume to be Ishmael. Abraham’s name is closely linked with Mecca, “the city of Abraham,” where he constructs the world’s first mosque, the Kaaba.

This brief biography of Abraham is taken from Sages, Saints, & Seers: A Breviary of Spiritual Masters, by Richard H. Schmidt (Morehouse Publishing, 2015). Printed with permission from the publisher.

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