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.
Journey to Belief
Though the Midrash 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:
- Intellectual inquiry – Rambam maintains that Avraham's belief was a product of his intellectual quest to understand the ways of the world.1
- Tradition – R. Yehuda HaLevi, in contrast, assumes that knowledge of Hashem was passed down through the generations, from Adam to Noach to Shem and finally to Avraham.
Was Avraham's monotheism unique? This question depends on how one understands the phrase "וּמַלְכִּי צֶדֶק מֶלֶךְ שָׁלֵם... כֹהֵן לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן":
- Not Unique – Malkizedek was similarly monotheistic.
- The Midrash, and many sources in its wake, identify Malkizedek with Shem, whose monotheism predated that of Avraham (and, who, as mentioned above, might have himself led Avraham to belief).
- Radak, instead, allows for the possibility that Malkizedek was an outsider, unrelated to Avraham in any way, who served only one God. Moreover, given that he was a king, it is possible that the entire city of Shalem was similarly monotheistic.
- Unique – Shadal, Netziv, and the Hoil Moshe, in contrast, maintain that being a "כֹהֵן לְאֵל עֶלְיוֹן" simply means serving the highest god in a pantheon of many gods. Alternatively, "Elyon" was the name of a Canaanite god whom Malkizedek served. Hoil Moshe emphasizes that Avraham's importance lay in the very fact that he was the sole monotheist, so it is inconceivable that others worshiped similarly.
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.]
- Full Observance – See Mishna Kiddushin, Tosefta Kiddushin, Bereshit Rabbah, and Rashi who suggest that Avraham kept the entire Torah, and according to some, even the Oral Law.
- No Observance – See Tosafot Rid, R. Avraham b. HaRambam, and R. Yosef ibn Kaspi who claim that Avraham observed what was specifically commanded to him by Hashem in Sefer Bereshit, but not other laws later given in the Torah. His greatness lay in his monotheistic belief and exemplary moral behavior, but not in ritual observance.
- Partial Observance – Rashbam suggests that only rational mitzvot which relate to a moral ethic were observed by Avraham and the other Patriarchs.
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 who 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.]
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:
- "הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן" – Sifre Devarim, Bavli Sanhedrin, and R. Elazar in Bereshit Rabbah all suggest that this verse speaks of converting those in Charan. Most of the non-midrashic sources, in contrast, assume the "souls" simply refer to Avraham's slaves and maidservants.
- "וַיִּבֶן שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַי"י וַיִּקְרָא בְּשֵׁם י"י" – While Onkelos, Rashi, and R"Y Bekhor Shor2 assume that Avraham's crying out in the name of God refers to personal prayer, Bereshit Rabbah and Ramban maintain that it refers to Avraham calling to others to worship Hashem. According to Ramban, it is possible that the altar was not even meant for sacrifices, but instead served as a monument to announce the unity of Hashem.
- "וַיִּטַּע אֶשֶׁל... וַיִּקְרָא שָׁם בְּשֵׁם י"י" – According to Resh Lakish in Sotah, Targum Pseudo Jonathon, and R. Saadia, the planting of the tree was meant to encourage people to gather around Avraham so he could teach them about Hashem. R"Y Bekhor Shor and Radak, in contrast, suggest that it related to the covenant with the Philistines and that the verse does not speak of missionary activities..
Tests of Faith
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?
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.]
- R. Yosef Bekhor Shor claims that Avraham was indeed praying for both the righteous and wicked, viewing collective salvation as a merciful act that transcends justice.
- R. Eliezer Ashkenazi vehemently disagrees, viewing the saving of unrepentant sinners as an injustice. He claims that Avraham was instead asking that the land of the righteous be saved (while the guilty were punished).3
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.]
- According to R. Bachya and Abarbanel, the story teaches the reader about Avraham's bravery and his capabilities as a military strategist and warrior.
- R. D"Z Hoffmann claims that this alone could not possibly be the story's purpose, as the Torah does not come to glorify its heroes as mighty warriors.4 Instead, he suggests that Avraham's refusal to benefit from the spoils of battle reveals both his generosity and recognition that all belongs to Hashem.5
- Alternatively, Radak and Ralbag assert that the story teaches the importance of enduring loyalty to one's family. Avraham was willing to risk his own life in order to rescue his nephew, even though Lot had taken up company with evil people.
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?
- Justified – Ralbag claims that, in times of famine, a person must do what they can to provide for themselves. We don't rely on miracles.
- Not Justified – Ramban, in contrast, claims that Avraham should have had faith that Hashem would save him from famine.
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!
- Justified – Most commentators attempt to defend Avraham's actions. Thus, Ralbag claims that preserving human life is more important than preventing forced sexual activity in a case where relations are not a Torah offense. The Ran, in contrast, suggests that Avraham was hoping to protect not only himself but also Sarah. He planned to act as her guardian, in charge of her nuptials, and to ask such a high dowry that no one would be able to meet it.6
- Not Justified - Ramban and Cassuto assert that Avraham erred. His actions betrayed a lack of faith in Hashem, and endangered Sarah unnecessarily.
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. Saadia 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?
- Sin – Shemuel in Bavli Nedarim, Vayikra Rabbah,Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and Tanchuma all maintain that Avraham displayed a lack of faith in Hashem when he asked for a sign that he would inherit the land. Moreover, they claim that he was punished severely for it; the decree of bondage in Egypt was a direct result of this speech.7
- No Sin – Many medieval and modern commentators (see, for example, Ibn Ezra, R"Y Bekhor Shor, HaKetav VeHaKabbalah, Shadal and R. S.R. Hirsch ) reject the possibility that Avraham doubted Hashem. R"Y Bekhor Shor suggests that Avraham was simply asking a factual question, when and how he will inherit. Ibn Ezra, instead, suggests that Avraham was asking that Hashem turn the promise of inheritance into an unconditional covenant.
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?
- Both Sarah and Avraham acted properly – R. Chananel claims that "וַתְּעַנֶּהָ" means that Sarah re-enslaved rather than afflicted Hagar. The angel's command "שׁוּבִי אֶל גְּבִרְתֵּךְ וְהִתְעַנִּי תַּחַת יָדֶיהָ" proves that Sarah did no wrong.
- Only Sarah acted improperly – Radak blames Sarah, but excuses Avraham who acted only out of a desire to keep peace in the home.
- Both Sarah and Avraham acted improperly – Ramban and Tzeror HaMor fault both parties. Avraham should not have given his wife free reign to do as she pleased.
Covenant with Philistines
Though most sources do not view Avraham's covenant with Avimelekh in Bereshit 21:22-32 as problematic, Rashbam 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.
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.
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 third wife – Radak and R. D"Z Hoffmann think Keturah is a new wife, taken after Sarah's death. In contrast, Shadal suggests that Avraham married her while Sarah was still alive.
- Hagar – Rav in Bereshit Rabbah, Tanchuma, and Rashi all claim that Keturah is simply another name for Hagar, and that Avraham remarried her after Sarah's death.
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.