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Biblical Israel - Abraham and Isaac

Updated: Mar 9


Abraham and his son Isaac were the first Patriarchs of Israel. Their story, which begins in the early second millennium B.C., is not only one of faith, it also provides an authentic look into the nomadic life of the ancient Hebrews.

As stated by Alfred Edersheim in his 1890 work called Bible History of the Old Testament, the whole history of Abraham may be arranged into four stages, each commencing with a personal revelation of Jehovah. The first, when the patriarch was called to his work and mission (Gen 12-14); the second, when he received the promise of an heir, and the covenant was made with him (Gen 15-16); the third, when that covenant was established in the change of his name from Abram to Abraham, and in circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant (Gen 17-21); the fourth, when his faith was tried, proved, and perfected in the offering up of Isaac (Gen 22:1-25:11). These are, so to speak, the high points in Abraham's history, which the patriarch successfully climbed, and to which all other events of his life may be regarded as the ascent.

Abraham's Origins

Abraham, descended by 10 generations from Noah, was born between 2000 and 1850 B.C. in northern Mesopotamia, near the Euphrates River. His family would have been indistinguishable from those of the many seminomadic tribesmen who had temporarily settled near the cities of the fertile crescent. These dusty caravaneers and herdsmen were relatively uncivilized, by Mesopotamian standards. They lived in tents, surrounded by their flocks of sheep and goats, and herds of cattle. Tough, self-sufficient men and women, they had arrived sporadically from the northeast and southwest. Many of them had respectfully adopted the native religions, but they were never fully absorbed by the carefully structured Mesopotamian society.

Though it is unlikely that Abraham and his brothers attended the cities' schools (only a privileged minority did), they were likely familiar with the local traditions and myths that the Mesopotamian civilization had developed. This probably included the story of the Great Flood. Abraham, however, was probably more familiar with the oral tradition of his own tribe – a long list of ancestors from Adam to his father, Terah. The names and deeds he was required to remember not only established Abraham's legitimate claim to membership in his tribe, they also explained the relationship of the tribe itself to other tribes.

Abraham settled with other nomads on the edge of the city of Urfa. This was the northern Ur, not the southern Ur, the great urban city of the Sumerians, but its northern colony site. For years, scholars and archaeologists had labeled southern Ur as Abraham's birthplace – ever since its discovery by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1920. But now, leading scholars are recognizing Urfa as the true location; 'Ur of the Chaldeans' it was called by the Greek historian Xenophon, and in the Book of Genesis itself.

From here, Terah's family grew as his three sons Haran, Nahor, and Abraham came of age and married. Haran died from unknown reasons and left a son, Lot, and a daughter, Milcah. Milcah later married her uncle Nahor. This kind of marriage – of niece and uncle – was not yet prohibited by Hebrew law. It had a practical purpose. The orphaned girl and her property were cared for within the family. Abraham and his wife Sarah probably loved their nephew Lot as a son, for they had no children of their own.

As Lot grew older, Abraham taught him the duties of a shepherd. These tasks included the constant look-out for predatory lions, jackals, and bears; the continual commanding of the wandering flock; separating sick sheep and goats from the main herd with crooks; carrying very young lambs and kids; and the endless search for more abundant grass and water.

Terah's clan probably did not own their land, but rented it from the Mesopotamians by the regular payment of a certain number of their animals. It was partly the desire for more fertile land that caused the clan to migrate south to Haran, a distance of only 28.8 miles, not the 4998 miles from southern Ur, as erroneously once believed.

The location of Haran was a gathering point for trade caravans. The walled city, surrounded by distinctive beehive-shaped huts, was ruled by the Amorites. Their capitals were at Haran and at Mari on the Euphrates, 250 miles to the south.

I Will Make You a Great Nation

The Hebrews probably camped outside the city walls of Haran where they could graze their animals and setup their camp. There they stayed for many seasons, and each year their number increased. This was an excellent location for trade and a good place to settle due to the fertile land. Terah eventually died here at Haran and Abraham, his eldest son, assumed the leadership of the tribe.