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ABRAHAM (ca. 1940 B.C.E.)

Founder of the Jewish people; first of the patriarchs, who discarded idol worship for belief in one God. The Covenant between God and Israel began with Abraham. His story is told in Genesis 11-25, from his birth in Ur of Chaldea in southern Mesopotamia to his death and burial in the cave of Machpelah near Hebron in the land of Ca­naan. Abraham was commanded by God to leave his birthplace between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and to settle in “the land that I will show you.” He obeyed and set out with his family on the long journey to Canaan. When he came to Sh’chem, “the Lord appeared to Abraham and said, ‘Unto your seed will I give this land!’” (Gen. 12:7) Throughout Genesis 11:26-17:5, Abraham is called Av-Ram, “exalted father.” Then his name is changed to Av-Raham, “father of multitudes”—“for the father of a multitude of nations have I made you…And I will establish my covenant between Me and you, and your seed after you in their generations for an everlasting covenant.” As a sign of this everlasting contract, Abraham instituted circumcision of every eight-day-old male child.

 The biblical account of Abraham brings new dignity to the story of humankind. Through the covenant of Abraham, each person becomes a partner in a contract with God, obligated to serve righteously and obediently, receiving in return the Promised Land as inheritance.

 As the story of Abraham unfolds, his love of peace, sense of justice, and compassion for suffering are revealed in his acts. With great pa­tience, he settled the disputes between the sheep herders of Lot and his own men. With great daring, he pleaded with God not to destroy the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah, even if there were only ten righteous people among them. In the story of Isaac’s sacrifice, Abra­ham’s sub­mission to God was test­ed. As com­manded, Abra­ham placed his son upon the altar, preparing to offer him up. An angel of God restrained him: “Lay not your hand upon the lad… for now I know you fear God.” Then Abraham lifted his eyes and saw a ram “caught up in a thicket by his horns.” He sacrificed the ram instead of  his Isaac. In Abraham’s time, sacrificing children to the gods was a com­mon ritual among heathens, but through his new faith learned that God forbade child sacrifice and that human life was sacred.

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