Who Was (and Is) Abraham?
On the day when Our Father Abraham passed away from the
world, all the great people of the nations of the world stood in a
line and said, “Alas for the world that has lost its leader, and alas
for the ship that has lost its pilot!”
THE OLDEST SOURCE for the story of Abraham is in the biblical book of Genesis, where it occupies about fourteen chapters, or roughly twenty pages. Readers who are unfamiliar with the story would be well advised to read it now, and in a modern, accessible translation.2 When they do, they will see that it is the deceptively simple tale of a person to whom God, suddenly and without preparation, makes some rather extravagant promises. This childless man (whose wife is infertile) is to be the father of a great nation; he will become famous and blessed, in fact a source or byword of blessing for many; and his descendants will be given the land of Canaan, to which he is commanded to journey, leaving his homeland in Mesopotamia (today, Iraq) and his family of origin behind. Much of the drama in these early chapters of the story derives from the question, how will this man whose wife has never been able to conceive a child and is now advancing in years ever beget the great nation that is at the center of the promise? The wealth associated with that promise comes quickly, but the son who will be Abraham’s heir and continuator does not, and this casts into doubt both the reliability of the promise and the God who made it.
When at long last Abraham does gain a son, it is not through his primary wife, but, at her suggestion, through an Egyptian slave who serves as a surrogate mother for her mistress. The resolution is short-lived. For no sooner is Abraham’s ostensible heir (Ishmael) born than God makes the astounding promise that the infertile wife,