By Jacob Isaacs
Published and copyrighted by Kehot Publication Society
One of the most important persons at Nimrod’s court in Ur of the Chaldees in Babel, or Babylonia, was Terah, the son of Nahor, a great-great grandson of Eber. Terah had three sons, Abram, Nahor, and Haran.
The night before Abram was born, Nimrod’s astrologers were gathered at Terah’s house. Looking out into the night sky, they read in the constellation of the stars that the newly born child was to become the chief and the father of a mighty nation. This discovery was communicated to Nimrod, who became afraid that the new star might darken his own.
Nimrod’s Attempt on Abram’s Life
Nimrod asked Terah to bring the newly born baby to the palace to be killed. Terah tried to talk Nimrod out of it, but he couldn’t. He risked his life and the lives of his whole family, and exchanged his son with a servant’s child born the same day as Abram. Nimrod did not suspect the ruse, and he killed the baby with his own hands. Meanwhile, Abram was hidden in a cave.
Young Abram Recognizes G-D
Abram stayed in the cave until he was ten years old. During this time he came to believe in the existence of G-d through reasoning. Abram had watched the sun and the moon and the stars coming and going, each in its own time. He had noticed the sun giving way to the moon, despite its apparent divine power, and the moon giving place to the sun in the morning. And so he reasoned that there must be a Power above and beyond all the visible forces of nature, a Power Who had created them, and Who regulated and controlled them at all times. Behind the limited power of all nature, young Abram perceived the unlimited and timeless existence of G-d.
Then G-d made Himself known to Abram and taught him the right way of living. Later Abram went to the house of Noah and Shem. There he stayed many years; there he studied and learned to serve G-d.
Abram Destroys the Idols
Nimrod had long forgot ten the threat of the new star which his astrologers had predicted. He had rewarded Terah for his faithfulness and had given him even higher honors than before. For Terah was clever, and Nimrod took his advice in matters of state. Besides, Terah had always appeared an obedient servant with regard to the new idols Nimrod introduced in his empire. Nimrod had no reason to hold any grudge against Terah, in spite of his astrologers’ predictions.
Abram had been taught the knowledge of the true G-d, and he despised the idol worship of the people around him. He therefore decided to do everything in his power to crush the belief in idol worship. He talked to all the visitors at his father’s house and convinced many that their belief in idols was false and foolish. But Terah refused to listen to his son’s reasoning.
One day, Abram took an axe and destroyed all his father’s idols. Only the largest remained intact. When Terah saw his idols shattered and scattered all over the floor, he accused Abram. But Abram said that the largest of the idols had killed all the others in a fight over an offering brought to them. Terah exclaimed that such a thing was impossible, since idols could not quarrel or fight. Then he realized that his son tricked him into admitting that the idols made of stone and wood could not even move, and he became very angry. Forgetting that he had long ago deceived Nimrod by substituting another child for Abram, he went to the king and reported his son’s irreverence towards the gods.
In Nimrod’s Hands
Nimrod had Abram thrown into prison and condemned to death by fire. Hundreds of people crowded to watch the son of Prince Terah burn alive for disloyalty and disrespect towards the gods. For Abram had not kept quiet when he was brought before the king. He accused Nimrod of reducing his people to the idolatrous state of the generation before the Flood. When Abram was condemned to die by fire, he exclaimed before the court that Nimrod had no power against the will of G-d. The fire could never harm him if G-d did not wish it to, for He who gave fire the strength to burn, could take it away. His courageous speech had spread all over the country, and everyone, rich and poor, young and old, was eager to find out whether Abram was right, or whether he was just a boastful dreamer.
The Miracle in the Furnace
Abram was thrown into the fiery furnace. But G-d was with him and the fire did not touch him. It only burned the rope which bound him.
For three whole days and nights, hundreds of people could hardly believe their eyes, seeing Abram walking in the midst of the flames, without having even a hair of his head burn. King Nimrod himself had to admit that Abram had spoken the truth and that he was a man of G-d. He asked Abram to come out of the furnace. Nimrod then gave Abram many presents and sent him back to his father’s house. But Abram did not go alone. For with him went two hundred men of noble descent, amongst them, Eliezer of Damascus, who was later to become Abram’s most trusted servant. They all abandoned Nimrod and his rich court to live with Abram and learn from him the knowledge of the true G-d.
Abram married Sarai. He lived with Terah until Nimrod sent for him again, this time intending to kill him secretly. But Abram learned of this plot in time, and escaped to Noah’s house, where he had lived as a young man. Terah followed him there, and together they went to Haran in Aram Naharaim, or Mesopotamia.
G-D Commands and Promise to Abram
But the people in Mesopotamia did not worship G-d. They worshipped all kinds of idols and followed the wicked ways of Nimrod and his people. G-d saw that Abram was the only one who was righteous and G-d fearing. G-d, therefore, appeared to Abram and said: "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you."
Abram did as G-d told him. At the age of seventy-five years, he left Haran, accompanied by his wife Sarai, and nephew Lot, the son of his brother Haran. They wandered into the land of Canaan. Here, near the city of Shechem, in the oak groves of Moreh, G-d again appeared to Abram and said: “This land I shall give to your children.” Abram built an altar to G-d and traveled through the country to spread the knowledge of G-d wherever he went.
Abram Goes To Egypt
While Abram was on this journey, a famine broke out in the land, and Egypt, so long known as the storehouse of the world, became the goal of Abram’s wandering. Knowing the evil ways and morals of the Egyptians, Abram tried to hide his fair wife Sarai. But the custom-officers discovered her and took her into King Pharoah’s palace, believing her to be Abram’s sister and not his wife. At night, G-d appeared to Sarai and assured her that nothing would happen to her. And G-d smote Pharaoh and his men with plagues, and they could not touch Sarai. When they found out the reason for all the trouble that had come to them, Pharoah called Abram and rebuked him for not having revealed to him that Sarai was his wife. Then he sent Abram and Sarai away, after he had given them many gifts of cattle and servants.
The Strife of the Herdsmen
The famine ended, and Abram and his household, among them his nephew Lot, returned to their old place in Canaan, between Beth-El and Ay. Abram was now very rich. He had flocks, silver, and gold in abundance. Lot also had a great number of sheep and cattle. But whereas Abram’s shepherds abided strictly by the rules given to them by their pious master concerning trespassing upon the property of others, Lot’s shepherds were rough men who did not respect this spirit of justice. Thus there were constant arguments and strife between the herdsmen of Abram and Lot. Soon complaints reached Abram about the misbehavior of Lot’s herdsmen and the strife between the shepherds. Abram therefore called Lot and said to him: “Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdsmen and thy herdsmen; for we are brethren. Is not the whole land before thee? Separate thyself, I pray thee, from me; if thou wilt take the left hand, then I will go to the right, or if thou take the right hand, then I will go to the left.”
Abram and Lot Separate
Abram and Lot were standing on the height near Beth-El, and: from this point they gazed over a wide extent of country. They looked down into the fruitful and blooming valley of the Jordan; it was indeed like the Garden of Eden, or like the rich land of Egypt they had just left. But the people of these lovely districts “were wicked and sinners before G-d exceedingly.” Lot made his choice without hesitation; and separating himself from his generous and unselfish kinsman, he journeyed eastward, and finally pitched his tent near Sodom, in the valley of the Jordan. Abram, left alone in his encampment near Beth-El, received from G-d another of those promises so full of hope and gladness. He was bidden to lift his eyes to the north and south, the east and west; for all that land should belong to him and to his descendants forever. And great and numerous should be his offspring, for G-d pledged, “I shall make your seed as the dust of the earth, so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then your seed shall also be numbered. Arise, pass through the land, in its length and in its width; for to you I shall give it.” Thus commanded by G-d, Abram traveled southward, until he reached the city of Kiryath Arba, later called Hebron. There he was welcomed by Aner, Eshkol and Mamre, the resident lords of the Amorites. They formed an alliance, and Abram settled down in the oak-groves of Mamre.
Lot a Prisoner of War
Lot was soon to discover that his greed for wealth had nearly cost him not only his entire fortune but also his life.
On the plain of the Jordan there were five old cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah, Zebaim, and Bela or Zoar. These cities had been conquered by Chedarlaomer, the powerful king of Elam, on the east of the Tigris. For twelve years these cities paid tribute to him, but then they rebelled, and regained their independence for thirteen years. The following year, however, the great king of Elam resolved upon crushing his former satellites; and with the help of three neighboring kings, he marched from his territory, confident of success. After having gained many victories in the east and south of the land, the kings descended upon the valley of the Jordan, the real object of their trip. The five cities trembled with terror at the approach of the conquerors. Yet, anxious to resist the invaders to the last, the kings of the five cities marched out at the head of their armies and met the enemy in the valley of Siddim, near the dangerous bitumen pits, which they hoped would entrap the unwary strangers. A desperate battle was fought. The four eastern kings overpowered their unfortunate opponents, and trapped the kings of Sodom and Gemorrah in the very bitumen pits which were to have become their own graves. The others fled in trembling haste towards the mountainous lands of Jericho. All their rich possessions fell into the hands of the conquerors. Amongst the captives was Lot, Abram’s nephew, who had remained in Sodom, his chosen place of residence. Abram was in the oak-groves of Mamre, when a messenger, who had escaped from the battlefield, arrived with the news that Abram’s nephew was a prisoner, a slave of the great king of Elam.
Abram immediately gathered all his men, three hundred and eighteen in number, and pursued Chedarlaomer’s victorious army. It was a daring act, but it proved Abram’s firm belief in G-d’s help and justice. Attacking by night and aided by many divine miracles, his small band of warriors defeated the overwhelmingly superior forces of Chedarlaomer. He recaptured all the loot, freed the people, and brought them back in a march of triumph, singing praises to G-d for His miraculous help wherever he went.
Laden with this wealth, and accompanied by Lot and his released fellow-captives, the conquering Abram returned towards his home. In the valley of Shaveh he was met by the king of Sodom, who came forth with Malkitzedek, the king of Salem, who, as mentioned before, was Shem, the son of Noah, and priest of G-d. In accordance with his priestly office, he brought bread and wine, which he gave to Abram, adding to this typical offering a blessing so true and simple: “Blessed be Abram of the Most High G-d, Who has delivered thy enemies into thy hand.” Abram gave him a tenth of everything he had.
The king of Sodom satisfied with the liberation of his captured hosts and country by Abram, gratefully offered to him the whole of the spoil he had brought back; but Abram, unwilling to be enriched by the wealth of idol worshippers, refused everything “from a thread to a shoe-strap”; yet he permitted his faithful allies Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre to take their due portions.
Count the Stars
After Abram’s victory over Chedarlaomer G-d appeared to Abram and promised him further protection and great reward. Abram exclaimed, “Of what avail is all my wealth if I go childless, and there be no one to carry on my work after me?”
The answer full of comfort came forthwith, that no stranger should be his heir, but his own child. To enhance the force of these words, G-d called Abram from his tent and told him to look upwards to the heavens. The next moment Abram was standing at the door of his tent, gazing upwards and listening to the Divine words: "Please look heavenward and count the stars, if you are able to count them." And He said to him, "So will be your seed." Although Abram was already an old man and his wife could hardly be expected to have children, now after she had been childless for so many years, Abram believed this promise, and G-d gave him much credit for his great faith. Again G-d appeared to him in a vision, this time not altogether of a comforting nature. And He said to Abram, “You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years. And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterwards they will go forth with great possessions. But you will come to your forefathers in peace; you will be buried in a good old age. And the fourth generation will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorites will not be complete until then.” As the voice of G-d ceased in the midst of the dense darkness, a flame descended upon the sacrifice Abram had offered up; and while the animals were consumed, G-d reappeared: “To your seed I have given this land, from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates river.”
Takes Hagar as Wife
The fame of Abram’s victory and his noble character spread far and wide, and he gained the respect and admiration of everyone. Abram would have been happy indeed, but for the fact that G-d had not blessed him with a heir. He and Sarai were growing old and longed for a child. When Abram reached his eighty-fifth birthday, Sarai asked him to marry her maid Hagar. Hagar, prior to becoming Sarai’s maid was a princess in Pharaoh’s house, she preferred to be a maid in Abraham’s household.
Abram accepted Sarai’s advice and took Hagar as wife. She bore him a son, who he called Ishmael, “G-d will hear.”
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, G-d appeared unto him again and changed his name from Abram to Abraham, meaning “the father of a multitude of nations.” Sarai also received the direct blessing of G-d; before she had been called Sarai, but now she should be known by the noble and proud name of Sarah, “Queen”: “I shall bless her,” said G-d, “and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be of her.”
G-d then made a covenant with Abraham. According to this covenant Abraham and his future generations must follow in the path of G-d, and G-d promised them the land of Canaan and His protection and care. The command for circumcision (Brit) was then given as a symbol of this covenant. Every newly born Jewish boy should be circumcised at the age of eight days. Abraham himself, despite his ripe age, and all the male members of his household, underwent that operation, and the covenant was established for all generations to come.
Abraham was recovering from his operation when G-d visited him in his tent in the groves of Mamre. The day was hot and Abraham was in pain.
It was not so much the discomfort of the heat that troubled Abraham, as the thought that the blazing sun was keeping all wayfarers off the road. G-d decided that He would not deprive Abraham of the pleasure of welcoming guests and visitors. G-d sent three angels disguised as wandering Arabs to walk past the grove. Abraham saw the wandering Arabs and ran forth to meet and greet them, forgetting all his pain.
He urged them not to pass by but to rest beneath the shade of the trees, whilst he fetched water to wash their feet, and bread for refreshment. No servant was to assist in preparing the strangers’ meal, but Sarah herself baked the cakes of fine flour, while Abraham hastened to the herd, choosing a young and tender calf, which was made ready without delay. Only later, when the angels announced that a year from that day Sarah would give birth to a son, did Abraham realize who his guests were; and happiness filled his heart. Sarah too, heard the message, and could hardly believe that at the age of ninety she was yet to be blessed with a child!