Abraham -

Abraham, Abram, lived in the 15th (?) century BC, according to the Book of Genesis and other biblical traditions, name of the common forefather of the of the Israelites, Edomites, and Arabs (patriarchs), which initiated the faith in the one God. For this reason, three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, regard him as the spiritual father of all believers. According to the Bible, at the behest of Yahweh, Abraham left his native Mesopotamia and went to Canaan, to lead a nomadic life, relying only on God. God made a covenant with him, the sign of which was his circumcision, and promised to give him descendants and the land of Canaan (hence, the Promised Land). He also changed his name from Abram to Abraham. As he had no descendant from the relationship with his wife Sarah, Abraham begot a son, Ishmael (allegedly, the ancestor of the Arabs), with her slave Hagar. However, after Sarah gave birth to their son, Isaac, Abraham expelled Hagar and her son. At the behest of God, Abraham was ready to immolate Isaac, but God resigned from the sacrifice at the last moment. After Sarah died, Abraham bought the cave of Machpelah as a tomb for her. He married a woman named Keturah. He died at a ripe old age (the symbol of a long and blessed life).

Originally, these and other references to Abraham were oral, etiological histories about families and cults, as well as explanations of relationships between different people. In the period of the Kingdom of Judah and Israel (10th–6th century BC), they were probably written down, and included into the Pentateuch around the 5th century BC. In the course of their transmission into written, they underwent theological and literary elaborations (e.g. it was assumed that Abraham’s journey from Mesopotamia to Canaan was shaped along the lines of the return of Jews from the Babylonian captivity). Therefore, historical reconstruction of Abraham’s life is not possible. The best traditional relations about his background come from the 15th century BC, although formerly also the 18th century BC used to be indicated. In the New Testament, apart from Moses, Abraham is the most often mentioned figure, as an example of perfect trust and loyalty to God; according to the Epistle to the Romans of the Apostle Paul, Abraham is the “father of those, who believe”. Descent from Abraham is considered a privilege of Israel. However, it does not constitute a guarantee of salvation. For the Apostle Paul, spiritual kinship with Abraham is, therefore, essential (imitating his faith); the “Abraham’s bosom”, known from the parable about the rich man and poor Lazarus, is interpreted in Jewish literature as the table community (strict unity) with Abraham, in which pious people participate. The interpretation of this expression as a place of eternal happiness after death was put forward not before than by the Church Fathers. In Judaism, Abraham is considered the major figure in the history of Israel, the advocate of monotheism and the enemy of idolatry, as well as known as the father of faith for those who convert. In the opinion of Jewish scholars, Abraham was the first rabbi who knew the Torah to the highest degree, following it closely, and never sinned. In Islam, Abraham (Ibrahim) is considered a prophet, a friend of God. Islam is explicitly understood as the faith of Abraham. He is mentioned in 25 surahs of the Quran.

Abraham plays a particular role in Jewish and Protestant philosophy. For Philo of Alexandra, Abraham is a confirmation of the subordination of reason to faith; according to Yehuda Halevi, he expresses human’s ability to live in communion with God; and according to Moses Maimonides, he gives rational evidence of “creation out of nothing” and existence of God. For E. Levinas, Abraham’s journey (compared with the journey of Odysseus) is a symbol of the open time and hope, characteristic for biblical anthropology, as opposed to the closed, circular time in the Greek ideology. In Protestant philosophy (S. Kierkegaard), the faith of Abraham constitutes the religious choice of God against the ethical obligation of fatherly love. The faith of Abraham is, therefore, the faith of „fear and trembling”.

Literary and musical themes present mainly the story of the sacrifice of Isaac. In visual arts, Abraham is pictured as an old man with white hair; in the Middle Ages — pictured in an archaic armour; the most popular scene: Abraham’s meeting with Melchizedek (Abraham and Melchizedek after 1251— Reims Cathedral), the sacrifice of Isaac (Caravaggio, Sacrifice of Isaac, 1603–1604 — Uffizi Gallery, Florence), and the angels visiting Abraham — interpreted as a symbol of the Holy Trinity, the particularly popular  scene in the Byzantine and Ruthenian  iconography (A. Rublev Holy Trinity, beginning of the 15th century — Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow). Knife is an attribute of Abraham.

Michał Wojciechowski

The content of this entry has been prepared on the basis of the source materials of the Polish Scientific Publishers PWN.

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