Avraham – Overview

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Overview

Avraham, the first of our forefathers, is a trailblazer in both belief and deed.  He leaves home and family to follow Hashem to an unknown land. Though his life is filled with tests and trials, from famine to a wife's bareness, family strife, and political struggles, he maintains faith in Hashem's promises and perseveres. He is a man of both "חסד" and "אמת".  He is strong enough to reproach Hashem when he thinks justice is not being done, yet humble enough to surrender himself before Him when asked to sacrifice his son.

Commentators discuss each of the Avraham stories, exploring Avraham's religious journey, leadership, and family life.  They emphasize the lessons to be learned from his various deeds, highlight character traits to be emulated, but also, at times, question his decisions and actions. The page below offers a glimpse at their differing understandings of some of the most pivotal episodes in Avraham's life and their varying portraits of his character and legacy.

Religious Identity

Journey to Belief

Though the Midrash38:13About Bereshit Rabbah shares stories of Avraham destroying his father's idols and being sentenced to death for his beliefs, we know nothing of his religious journey from Sefer Bereshit itself. Rambam and the Kuzari offer two possibilities, each in line with their own philosophical beliefs about attainment of faith:

Uniqueness?

Was Avraham's monotheism unique? This question depends on how one understands the phrase "וּמַלְכִּי צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם... כֹהֵן לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן":

Avraham's Observance of Mitzvot

Did Avraham keep all the mitzvot? The issue has been hotly debated for generations. On one hand, Avraham lived centuries before the Torah was given and many of its laws would be meaningless to him, suggesting that he did not keep them. On the other hand, it seems paradoxical to conceive of the founder of a religion not observing even its most basic commandments. This leads to a variety of approaches to the question: [For a full discussion of the issue, see Avot and Mitzvot – Was Avraham the First Jew.]

Distinct Worship?

How distinct was Avraham's mode of worship from those around him?  This question is an outgrowth of the above. If Avraham was unaware of later commandments, is it possible that, in worshiping Hashem, he borrowed from the practices of the pagans around him?

  • Akeidat Yitzchak – See Shadal Bereshit 22:1About R. Shemuel David Luzzattowho suggests that Avraham, like the rest of the world in his era, originally viewed child sacrifice as the highest form of devotion to God. It was only through the story of the Akeidah itself that Hashem taught both him and the monotheistic world at large that the practice was, in fact, immoral and repugnant. For elaboration, see Purpose of Akeidat Yitzchak.
  • "וַיִּטַּע אֶשֶׁל... וַיִּקְרָא שָׁם בְּשֵׁם י"י" – Is it possible that Avraham's planting of a tree in a place of worship is influenced by surrounding Canaanite practices, as attested to by the later prohibition, "לֹא תִטַּע לְךָ אֲשֵׁרָה כׇּל עֵץ אֵצֶל מִזְבַּח ה" (Devarim 16:21)? [See below for sources that suggest, instead, that the tree was meant to invite people to gather, so Avraham could teach them about Hashem.]

Missionary?

Did Avraham attempt to convert others to belief in Hashem? Though Sefer Bereshit never explicitly presents Avraham as actively doing so, commentators point to several verses which might bear on the question:

Tests of Faith

Unique Traits

Belief in Hashem

See discussion above.

"תִּתֵּן.. חֶסֶד לְאַבְרָהָם"

Avraham is often portrayed as a paradigm of "חסד", with his hosting of guests being held up as a model to emulate.  How unique, though, was Avraham in this regard?  

"צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט"

In Bereshit 19, Hashem shares how He chose Avraham because He knew that Avraham was to teach his children "righteousness and justice". Avraham then proceeds to stand up for this very issue, reproaching Hashem's decision to totally destroy Sedom. Avraham makes two somewhat contradictory arguments, condemning collective punishment, yet simultaneously requesting collective salvation. How do these requests relate to each other?  Is one more just than the other? [See Avraham's Prayer for Sedom for elaboration and discussion of the various modes of Divine Justice.]

Conduct in Battle

Bereshit 14 describes the Battle of the Kings and Avraham's military intervention so as to save his nephew Lot from captivity. Many suggest that the story was included in Tanakh since Avraham's conduct in war was worthy of emulation: [See Battle of the Kings – Purpose of the Story for elaboration.]

Possible Sins

Avraham in Egypt

Bereshit 12 describes Avraham's descent to Egypt due to famine. Commentators debate the propriety of his conduct throughout the episode. [For a full discussion of the various issues, see Endangering Sarai in Egypt.]

Leaving Israel – Was Avraham justified in leaving the land promised to him by Hashem, or should he have trusted that Hashem would care for him during the famine and stayed put?

Endangering Sarah – Should Avraham have risked Sarah's honor to save his own life? After all, by posing as Avraham's sister, Sarah presented herself as available, making it much more likely that the Egyptians would take her!

Lying – Was lying justified under the circumstances?

  • Avraham lied – Most sources assume that in cases of danger to life, one is allowed to lie. 
  • Avraham did not lie – R. SaadiaCommentary Bereshit 20About R. Saadia Gaon adds that Avraham did not actively lie, but rather used a word with a dual meaning ("sister" can refer to either a sister or any relative).

"בַּמָּה אֵדַע כִּי אִירָשֶׁנָּה"

After Hashem promises Avraham the Land of Israel in Bereshit 15, Avraham questions, " בַּמָּה אֵדַע כִּי אִירָשֶׁנָּה".  Is this an expression of lack of belief in Hashem?

Afflicting Hagar

In Bereshit 16, Sarah gives Hagar to Avraham in marriage, hoping that she will bear him a son.  After conceiving, Hagar begins to belittle her mistress, acting with disrespect ("וַתֵּקַל גְּבִרְתָּהּ בְּעֵינֶיהָ").  When Sarah complains, Avraham tells her, "הִנֵּה שִׁפְחָתֵךְ בְּיָדֵךְ עֲשִׂי לָהּ הַטּוֹב בְּעֵינָיִךְ," leading Sarah to afflict the maidservant ("וַתְּעַנֶּהָ שָׂרַי") and Hagar to flee. How should both Sarah and Avraham's actions be viewed?  Was Sarah being overly harsh? Even if so, should Avraham be held accountable?

Covenant with Philistines

Though most sources do not view Avraham's covenant with Avimelekh in Bereshit 21:22-32 as problematic, RashbamBereshit 22:1About R. Shemuel b. Meir uniquely faults Avraham for making the treaty.  He asserts that the Philistine land was included in Hashem's promise to Avraham, and thus the prohibition "לֹא תְחַיֶּה כׇּל נְשָׁמָה" applied to them as well. According to Rashbam, the command to sacrifice Yitzchak was meant to distress Avraham and punish him for this deed.8  See Purpose of Akeidat Yitzchak for elaboration.

Family Life

Sarah

Sarah's Status – When did Avraham and Sarah realize that Sarah was to be the mother of the chosen heir?

  • Knew from the beginning – Most assume that the couple knew from the very beginning that Avraham's line and legacy was to continue through the son born from Sarah.
  • Knew only in Chapter 17 – It is only in Chapter 17, though, that Hashem makes this explicit, leading to the possibility that until then Sarah's status was in doubt.  This could explain Sarah's overly harsh reaction to Hagar's belittling of her in Bereshit 16.9  It also suggests that the first few Avraham stories might be aimed at presenting the rejected possibilities – Lot, Avraham's servant Eliezer, and Yishmael.

Endangering Sarah – See sources and discussion above, and see Endangering Sarai in Egypt for more.

Hagar & Yishmael

See discussion about the affliction of Hagar above, and see Banishment of Hagar and Yishmael for discussion of thier expulsion.

Keturah

Bereshit 25 speaks of Avraham's marriage to Keturah.  Who is this woman?  Based on the simple chronology of the chapters, Avraham is at least 140 when marrying her; why does he feel a need to remarry at such an advanced age? Finally, what is the Torah trying to teach us by recounting this episode? See Avraham's Many Wives for discussion of these issues.

A Wife for Yitzchak Before his death, Avraham entrusts his servant with the mission of finding a wife for Yitzchak.  What was Avraham's main criterion in looking for a spouse for his son? Was lineage, beliefs or character most important? Commentators debate the issue: [See A Wife for Yitzchak for details.]

Comparison to Other Figures

Setting up foils is often a useful method to highlight the unique aspects of a character  or story.  What can be learned about Avraham from the following comparisons?

In the Arts

The sacrifice of Yitzchak is considered by many to be the pinnacle of Avraham's career. To compare how the story has been interpreted by artist and commentator alike, see Akeidat Yitzchak in Art.

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