Abraham is remembered in the Bible as the father of faith and the ancestor of the Israelites (
Did you know…?
- Abraham is the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?
- Abraham is portrayed as the first monotheist?
- The stories of Abraham are a mixture of history, folklore, and fiction?
Was Abraham the first monotheist?
The book of Joshua says that when God called Abraham from Mesopotamia, Abraham’s family was polytheistic: they “served other gods” (
Did Abraham actually exist?
Abraham certainly exists in biblical memory. The twelve tribes of Israel recalled him as their first patriarch. But tribal memories in the ancient world were not always historically accurate—they were a mixture of history, legend, and myth. Such traditional stories reshape the past so that it remains relevant for the present. The stories of Abraham are not immune to these cultural changes. As a result, we do not know whether Abraham actually existed. But even if he did, many (or most) of the details in the Abraham stories are legendary and not historical. Some details that do seem to retain ancient historical memories are the importance of upper Mesopotamia (the region of Haran) as the ancestral homeland and the worship of a deity named El (“God”). Both of these features are important in Amorite tribal cultures of the early second millennium B.C.E. So it seems that ancient details are occasionally preserved in the stories. But the stories are not about a half-forgotten Amorite tribal figure; they are about the biblical Abraham, who is the patriarch of Israel and the chosen one of God.
The biblical Abraham may not have actually existed, but his memory certainly does in the three great monotheistic religions. In classical Judaism, interpreters elaborated on the biblical stories, making Abraham a dedicated monotheist even before God chose him. By doing so, these interpreters clarified why God chose Abraham: because he was already the first monotheist! In early Christianity, the apostle Paul drew on the Abraham story to affirm that faith is independent of works, because Abraham trusted in God before he was commanded to circumcise himself and his sons (