A Rock on Which to Build the World
Thomas Cahill, an American scholar and writer, wrote in his book The Gifts of the Jews about the call of Abraham:
If we had lived in the second millennium BC, the millennium of Abraham, and could have canvassed all the nations of the earth, what would they have said of Abraham’s journey? In most of Africa and Europe, they would have laughed at Abraham’s madness and pointed to the heavens, where the life of earth had been plotted from all eternity…a man cannot escape his fate. The Egyptians would have shaken their heads in disbelief. The early Greeks might have told Abraham the story of Prometheus….Do not overreach, they would advise; come to resignation. In India, he would be told that time is black, irrational and merciless. Do not set yourself the task of accomplishing something in time, which is only the dominion of suffering. On every continent, in every society, Abraham would have been given the same advice…do not journey but sit; compose yourself by the river of life, meditate on its ceaseless and meaningless flow.1
Abraham is the only person in the Old Testament called the “friend” of God (Isa. 41:8; Jas. 2:23). In the New Testament, he is listed as an ancestor of Jesus Christ (Mt. 1:1) and the spiritual father of all who receive the free gift of salvation through faith (Gal. 3:6–7).
While information on Abraham’s early life is scant, the Bible does show how his life of obedience and faith was a work in progress. Rabbis have also created many fables to try to fill in Abraham’s forgotten early years.
His Forgotten Years
Abraham probably was born in the city of Ur in Southern Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). His father was Terah, and his brothers were Nahor and Haran. Abraham’s wife was his barren half-sister Sarai, later called Sarah.
Haran died in Ur, leaving behind three children: Lot, Milcah, and Iscah (Gen. 11:27–29). The family then moved to Haran (v. 31).
When Abraham was 75, he left his 145-year-old father behind in Haran and set out for Canaan in obedience to God (12:1–4). Terah lived 60 years longer and died in Haran (11:32).
Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land included a personal journey to know the true God, since Terah’s family apparently was polytheistic:
“Thus says the Lᴏʀᴅ God of Israel: ‘Your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods’” (Josh. 24:2).
Folklore. During the Jewish dispersion after AD 70, rabbis developed a large folklore collection for Abraham’s early, forgotten years. These tales are called in Yiddish Bubba Misehs, meaning exaggerated “grandma stories” (old wives’ tales) that have dubious origins.
One classic tale regarding Abraham’s early life makes Terah a builder and seller of idols. One day Terah leaves young Abram (later called Abraham) in charge of the store. A man walks in, wanting to buy an idol. Abram asks him how old he is. The man replies, “Fifty years.”
Abram then says, “You are fifty years old and would worship a day-old statue!” The man leaves the shop ashamed.
Later, a woman walks in to make an offering of flour to the idols. So Abram takes a stick, smashes the idols, and places the stick in the hand of the largest idol. When Terah returns, he asks Abram what happened to all the idols.
Abram tells him a woman came in to make an offering, but the idols began to argue over which one should eat the offering first. Then the large idol took the stick and smashed the other idols.
Terah is furious and tells Abram the idols are merely statues, having no life or power. Abram responds by illustrating the foolishness of worshiping idols: “Have they then any knowledge? Should not your ears listen to what your mouth is saying? You deny their life and power, yet you make and worship them!” (Midrash Rabba, Genesis 38.13).
His Fruitless Years
A long time elapsed between God’s call of Abraham to leave his father’s house and Abraham’s actual journey. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, alluded to this fact in his defense before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court: “Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you’” (Acts 7:2–3).
Stephen clearly said Abraham received God’s call before he journeyed. Therefore, Abraham’s settling in Haran with his family indicates he failed to obey God’s command fully.
The Bible does not say why they stayed at Haran. But a popular medieval French rabbi named Rashi (1040–1105) wishfully proposed that Abraham must have been developing a circle of disciples in the worship of the one true God.
Perhaps Terah was the cause of Abraham’s fruitless years in Haran. His father’s name in Hebrew means “to delay.” Conceivably, Terah’s company delayed Abraham from following God’s call.
If so, Terah typifies obstacles that delay one from fulfilling the Lord’s will.
His Faithful Years
The writer of Hebrews wrote the following about Abraham’s faith and obedience to God:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called,” concluding that God was able to raise him up, even from the dead, from which he also received him in a figurative sense (Heb. 11:8–10, 17–19).
During his faithful years, Abraham willingly obeyed God’s call. He left Haran and his old way of life. Though the only land he owned in Canaan was his wife’s grave site (Gen. 23:17–20), he was a faithful sojourner who believed in God’s promises.
Abraham’s complete trust in God’s sovereign word is also evident in the Akedah, Hebrew for the “binding” of Isaac. When God told Abraham to offer his only son, he was willing to obey (chap. 22). This passage is solemnly read each morning in some synagogues and on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Since God had promised Abraham that through Isaac he would father a great nation, Abraham believed that even if Isaac died, the sovereign God who keeps His word would be “able to raise him up, even from the dead” (Heb. 11:17–19).
Abraham finally saw the Lord’s promise fulfilled. During the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), a triumphant celebration of anticipation of the Messianic King and Kingdom, Jesus responded to His critics: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (Jn. 8:56). Perhaps Abraham saw the culmination of the promised seed through Isaac—Christ the King on His throne in Jerusalem!
A Talmudic passage on Isaiah 51:1 once opined, “When the Holy One contemplated the generations of Enosh and the Flood, He said, How can I build a world with such wicked material? But when he envisioned Abraham, He said, I have found a rock [petra] on which to build the world!”2
Imagine, when God told Abraham, “Lekh lekha” (Hebrew for “Go forth,” Gen. 12:1), He set in motion the creation of Israel, from which the Savior of the world would come—Jesus, the Son of Abraham.
- Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels, cited in SimpleToRemember.com <tinyurl.com/okpumzr>.
- Joseph Baron ed., A Treasury of Jewish Quotations (New York: Crown Publishers, 1956), 1.