Middle Eastern Mythologies

The Bible and Judaism

Who was Abraham?

Abraham (at first Abram; Ibrahim in Arabic), the founding hero of the three major monotheistic religions, was the son of a man named Terah in the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia. His role as a bona fide mythological hero in the monotheistic context becomes clear when as a child he destroys the idols his father makes as a profession. Later Abram begins his heroic quest, when, as he and his family travel toward Canaan, Yahweh appears to him, urges him on, and promises him eventual greatness: “I shall make you into a great nation.” After a time in Egypt during a famine, Abram and his wife Sarai returned to Canaan and Abram built altars to Yahweh in Hebron. Yahweh again appeared to him and promised the whole land of Canaan after a four-hundred-year period.

As Sarai was barren, Abram took a slave, Hagar, as a mistress, and in time she gave birth to Ishmael (Ismail in Arabic).

When Abram was ninety-nine, Yahweh renamed him Abraham, “Father of Many Nations,” and he renamed Sarai, “Princess,” having established a sacred covenant with Abraham. As a sign of his covenant with his people, Yahweh ordered that all males following Abraham be circumcised. This was a symbolic rite of sacrifice and obedience to God. Abraham and Ishmael immediately had themselves circumcised, and Jews and Muslims—believing themselves to be descendants of Abraham and benefactors of the covenant—have practiced the rite of circumcision ever since. For Christians, circumcision has been considered unnecessary because Jesus is believed to have sacrificed himself for all people.

Yahweh said that Sarah, in spite of her barrenness and old age, would produce a child, Isaac. This she did, and afterwards sent Hagar and Ishmael away. The new child, Isaac, would be Abraham’s heir, but Yahweh promised that Ishmael would father a great nation. This would be the nation of Islam.

Isaac was only a boy when Yahweh tested Abraham’s loyalty by demanding that the boy be sacrificed to him. The ever-dutiful prophet agreed to sacrifice his son and was about to complete the act when a lamb was miraculously substituted for the boy. Some have associated this act of obedience and sacrifice with the rite of circumcision.

Sarah died in Hebron at the age of 127. Abraham died there at 175.

Their son Isaac, along with Isaac’s son Jacob, would carry on the heroic quest for the Promised Land. Ishmael (as Ismail) would become the center of an Islamic myth in Arabia.


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