The name Abraham in the Bible
The name Abraham is applied to only one man in the Bible: the famous son of Terah, who started out his life as Abram in Ur of the Chaldeans (Genesis 11:27) and ended it in Canaan, as the grandfather of Jacob, who became Israel.
The literary function of the character of Abraham obviously far exceeds that of a historical figure (Matthew 22:32) and his patriarchy obviously has nothing to do with physical descent — that particular obsession came later, spawned by nationalism (Matthew 3:9). Abraham's patriarchy denotes a shared behavior (John 8:39) — what we moderns would call an -ism , in essence comparable to the patriarchies of Jabal and Jubal, the "fathers" of all who keep life stock, live in tents and play music (Genesis 4:20-21). Jabal and Jubal's physical lineage was cut short by Noah's flood and their patriarchies, like Abraham's, sum up activity and not physical descent.
It's been famously said that Abraham believed YHWH (and He reckoned that as righteousness; Genesis 15:6). The key-verb is אמן ('aman), which does not denote simply accepting for true an otherwise unverified statement but rather an active upholding of a standard. Abraham's patriarchy is one of doing; an activity much more fundamental than any particular conviction.
The Biblical narrative does not progress along a temporal axis (following time, like a modern story would) but along a complexity axis (from general to specific). Hence Adam marks the level that all living things have in common (Eve was the 'mother of all life', or in modern terms: the biosphere; Genesis 3:20, and the 'original sin' affected the whole of creation; Romans 8:22), and Noah marks the level of complexity at which the human mind is distinguished from animal behavior (hence 'they knew not until the flood came'; Matthew 24:39, also see 2 Peter 2:12 and Jude 1:10).
The story of Abraham serves as ultimate result of the destruction of the tower of Babel. Abraham's story follows the tower's story directly (Genesis 11), as two sides of the same coin. The proverbial tower of Babel manifests the quintessential need of people to gather around an identifying center, whereas Abraham's story is characterized by a divergence away from local centralization. The tower of Babel marks the level of primary state formation and Abraham marks the beginning of international dialogue, the exchange of goods and ideas, and the "centralization" around universal rather than local convictions.
In the New Testament, the tension between Abraham and the tower of Babel is playfully revisited in the relationship between Jesus (John 12:32) and Mary Magdalene (= Mary of God's Tower), whose signature deliverance from seven demons was not a new thing but rather based on a time honored dictum: compare Luke 8:2 to Proverbs 9:1, Exodus 2:16 and even Revelation 1:4.
Father of many nations
The Lord told Abraham that he would be the father of many nations (אב המון גוים, 'ab hamon goyim; Genesis 17:4-5) — not simply the father of many people but the father of the many nations that were established right after the flood (as listed in Genesis 10). The word המון, (hamon), in turn, does not express simply a large number, but the rain-like noise that emerges from a unified but seething throng, and the throng, in this case, consists of autonomous nations.
The Bible indicates that a multitude of גוים, goyim, or "nations" is the ultimate form of human society, which is remarkable because since time immemorial people have believed that they could somehow form a global empire that would unite all the nations, dissolve all borders and reign the entire world from one throne. But despite the efforts of many an emperor, it appears that humanity is designed to operate by means of nations (albeit nations of the fourth stage; see below).
The prophet Haggai famously foretold the coming of the Messiah, and said that the desire of all nations (and not simply all people) would come (Haggai 2:7). And indeed, when Jesus commissioned His disciples, He told them to make disciples of all the nations (not simply of all people; Matthew 28:19).
When John the Revelator saw the end of the present age, he saw the New Jerusalem come down from heaven and settle on the earth, and the nations (not simply the people) would walk by its light, and the kings of the earth, the local governments, would bring their glory into it (Revelation 21:24-26). The New Jerusalem is not a global government that will restrict the nations in any way, as all human governments do, but rather that which forms out of the synchronicity of the nations in their unbridled freedom: "On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations (not simply the people; 22:2)."
Abraham the statesman
Modern definitions of state usually concentrate on political structures, but in classical times a state would be defined by the range of its culture, and its culture would be the tangible manifestation of its wisdom tradition — that is its religion, skills, science, technology and literature. We can distinguish four separate levels of natural state formation. Babylon marks the first level, Abraham the second and the resurrected Christ the fourth:
- The initial formation of a state out of a society of foragers occurs as activities synchronize, population density increases in areas of natural benefit (coasts, rivers, fertile planes), and a tradition of primitive chiefdoms develops into a complex central authority. At this stage, the realm of the state covers the known world and thus has no need to mark a physical boundary. All lines of sight are inward and the state concentrates solely on understanding and harnessing nature. It forms its signature culture by means of synchronicity among its people and according to this understanding. At this stage, the state experiences no competition and hence neither needs an army nor develops a warrior culture. Examples of first-stage states are very early Egypt and Mesopotamia. In the animal world this stage would be represented by any herd or pack that follows a clearly identified alpha around a set territory. In literature this stage would be represented by a naturally growing tree or forest (Psalm 1:3, Ezekiel 31:3).
- The second distinct stage of natural state formation follows from a reversal of the line of sight, from inward to outward; when the primordial state becomes aware of others, develops a sort of cultural theory-of-mind and initiates interaction and synchronicity between states. Merchants will initially travel all the way from one social nexus to the next, but quickly seek to meet somewhere conveniently in the middle. There, that artificial center of human congregation will eventually also form into a state. States of this second stage are identical to those of the first (central government and geographically bound realm), except for their reason for being there. The Israel of the kingdom years is a state of the second stage, which arose from the interaction between the first-stage states of Mesopotamia and Egypt (an interaction clearly played out in the Abraham cycle). This stage would be poetically represented by a cultivated tree or orchard.
- A state of the third stage is like those of the second in that it forms out of human interaction and has a central government at some specific geographic location. The difference with a second-stage state, however, is that the realm of a third-stage state is not fixed to a specific location, but coincides with and overlaps the realms of second- and first-stage states. Classical societies that specialized in forming colonies all over (the Phoenicians, most notably, but also pre-Titus Israel with its Jewish populations in every major city in the known world) are states of the third stage, but so are modern international companies such as McDonald's and Microsoft, and the Catholic church, with its government fixed in Vatican City but its realm stretching into pretty much every second-stage state in the world (states of the first stage obviously don't exist anymore). In literature, this third-stage state might be represented by a vine or a vineyard.
- The fourth stage of natural state formation is like the third with as main distinction that it has no central government. The citizens of a fourth stage state operate by means of a shared conviction. The actions and development of a fourth-stage state are not culled by the opinions or visions of a single governing body but are rather cultivated by a defining constitution much like the DNA of a multi-cellular organism. Among animals fourth stage states are common: bees and ants and the likes operate like that (like a "super-organism"), and in the human world perhaps the international "science-world" could be viewed as a fourth stage state (not based on what it knows but on how it works), and nowadays, of course, the Internet. In literature this stage is celebrated as the Body of Christ, a.k.a. Ecclesia, or the New Jerusalem, obviously not to be confused with any formal church or religion. A fourth stage state can only be sustained when it is based on natural law; a law that doesn't change and is not affected by anybody's beliefs.
From Abraham onward the Old Testament deals with the intensification of international exchange (more and more sharing and less and less hoarding; hence the era of the great empires) and obviously culminates at the level of personal transcendence (no more self) and full dedication to exchange (only sharing). Hence Paul wrote that Jesus (making the ultimate sacrifice) was the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant (Romans 4:11, Galatians 3:7).
Abraham the border man
It should be emphasized that despite the claims of Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, neither Jesus nor Abraham have anything to do with any formal religion. Abraham marks the complexity level of interaction and exchange, which on the level of matter and energy is described by the second law of thermodynamics: all concentrations of energy must eventually level out (Isaiah 40:4). Jesus not only represents ultimate sacrifice but also the only thing people from all variously specified cultural backgrounds (low entropy) must eventually agree on (high entropy), namely the summing up of all natural law, unified by what scientists label the Grand Unified Theory and theologians know as the Word Of God.
Abraham is not a border-maker; he is a border-breaker, the embodiment of the second law of thermodynamics, the world-wide free exchange of knowledge and skills. His patriarchy is one of consilience; in him are summed up the peacemakers of which Jesus said they would be called Sons Of God (Matthew 5:9). Read our article on the familiar Hebrew word שלום, (shalom) for a look at the actual, fundamental meaning of the often misunderstood Biblical concept of peace.
Note that in order for exchange to be possible, there first have to be things that can do the exchanging. God promised that Abraham's descendants would be like the dust of the earth (Genesis 13:16), and indeed, his family develops clearly similar to the structure known in particle physics as the Standard Model of Elementary Particles (and follow the link for the details). Some readers may have noticed that the above scheme of natural state formation looks suspiciously similar to the distribution of energy in the very early universe, as well as the biological phenomenon commonly referred to as evolution. This universal pattern of progression is laid out in its most rudimentary form in Genesis 1; the first level of state formation coincides with the forming of dry land on the third day (see our article on the name Hebrew), whereas the second-to-fourth level coincides with the stars of the fourth day (Genesis 15:5).
Also note the signature link between Abraham and the camel. Our word 'camel' comes from the Semitic noun גמל (gamal), which in turn derives from the verb גמל (gamal), which means to trade internationally with the express objective of cultivating and maturing. In other words: the Hebrew word 'camel' does not bring to mind a particular animal but rather expresses a unit of trade, comparable to our word 'barrel'. Abraham's "son of the promise" is Isaac, whose name means Laughter or Play, which seems to indicate that international trade is to result in leisure and sport. Isaac's wife Rebekah is obtained when Eliezer heads north with Abraham's camels and "all his master's goods in his hand" and pleads, negotiates and entices but significantly refrains from forcing any transaction (24:5-8).
Abraham the family man
The table of nations of Genesis 10 denotes the world's various states of the first stage, and the members of the family of Abraham denote the states of the second stage. Most of these very early states have long gone (or went by other names than modern ones; very early states probably changed names much more often than states do today and were doubtlessly known to their contemporaries by multiple names), but some are clearly recognizable. The distinction between husbands and wives on this international scale is rather tricky, but roughly: a husband would represent the political identity of a state while the wife would denote the state's culture. A state can have only one political government (husband), even though it may comprise multiple cultures (wives).
Whoever he was, Terah of Ur had three sons: Abram, Haran and Nahor, and their half-sister was called Sarai (same father but unmentioned mother: Genesis 20:12). Brother Haran had a son named Lot and two daughters named Milcah and Iscah. Brother Nahor married niece Milcah and also had a concubine named Reumah. Abram married half-sister Sarai and adopted nephew Lot after brother Haran died (Genesis 11:27-29). When the family began their famous journey, brother Nahor remained in Paddan-aram and from his descendants would later come wives for Abraham's son Isaac and grandson Jacob.
Not Abram but Terah decided to move away from Ur (means Light) of the Chaldeans (Babylon's ethnically distinct intellectual elite, comparable to the Levites of later Israel) and go to Canaan (which means Trade), but Terah died halfway, in a city also called Haran where they had settled for the time being (11:32). There Abram received word from YHWH to go forth from the land of his father (that would be Haran; 12:4) and finish the journey to Canaan that Terah had begun (12:1).
When Sarai failed to conceive the Child of the Promise, she gave Abram her Egyptian servant Hagar, who conceived of Ishmael (16:3). The Lord appeared again to Abram, changed his name to Abraham and Sarai's name to Sarah, instituted circumcision and again promised them a child (Genesis 17-18). A year later, Isaac was born (21:3).
When Sarah died, Abraham married Keturah and sired another six sons (25:1-2), among whom Midian, an Arabic nation, to where Moses fled and where he met his first wife Zipporah (Exodus 2:15-22; his second wife was a Cushite; Numbers 12:1). Abraham also fathered an untold number of sons with an untold number of concubines, whom Abraham gave gifts and sent to the east, away from Isaac (25:6). Hence Abraham had at least ten sons, eight of whom we know the names of.
Ishmael's Egyptian mother gave her son an Egyptian wife, and he became the father of twelve 75% Egyptian princes (21:21, 25:16) and a daughter (28:9). Lot settled in Sodom but escaped its infamous destruction and by his daughters he fathered Ammon and Moab, the nations directly to Israel's east (Genesis 19).
Isaac married Rebekah of the Chaldeans, who bore him Jacob and Esau. Esau married Hittite and Ishmaelite women (26:34, 28:9) and became Edom, the nation directly to Israel's south (the later king Herod was an Edomite). Jacob married Rachel (who came with Bilhah) and Leah (who came with Zilpah; all four Chaldeans, as far as we know), had twelve sons and one daughter (Dinah) and became Israel.
Israel, therefore, was of pure Babylonian pedigree, but as a state it did not simply denote a group of descendants of a common ancestor, it denoted an international amalgamation of funds and knowledge:
All the families of the earth
Far from being an isolated depository of utterly alien dictums, Israel was the melting pot and refinery of the greatest traditions the world had come up with (Psalm 12:6). Israel was never intended to be anything other than a phenomenon from which every family mentioned in Genesis 10 would actively derive blessings, right away and from the "family-level" up (Genesis 12:3).
The word for "families" or "clans" occurs five times in Genesis 10 (also see Ephesians 3:15) and denotes the most rudimentary human organizational structure. Multiple families would synchronize into speaking one language. That language would cover a specific territory and that territory would determine the realm of the state that would eventually form. Hence Genesis 10 utilizes the formula of progression: "according to their families (משפחה, mishpaha), their languages (לשון, lashon), their lands (ארץ, 'eres), their nations" (גוי, goy). Long before it was formally established, Israel was an international project; a USA of its days, with myriads of cultural and economic tributaries:
Neither the general "house of Abraham" nor the specific "house of Israel" was racially pure — or said otherwise: racial purity is of absolutely no concern to the Bible (the Bible is only concerned with purity of thought and action; Deuteronomy 7, Deuteronomy 20:18). The covenant which the Lord cut with Abraham and of which Christ is the fulfilment, covered all males in Abraham's household (Genesis 17:12), including the hundreds of not-related men he had at his disposal when he set out to liberate Lot (14:14). While still merely a large family, Israel absorbed the women and children of the town of Shechem (Genesis 34:29). We don't know how large this village was, but the chances are excellent that it was of similar or larger size than Israel. This means that after Dinah's revenge, Israel's gene pool was largely Hivite. When Israel left Egypt, it was joined by a mysterious "mixed multitude" (ערב רב 'arab rab: Exodus 12:38), which doubtlessly denoted fellow slaves of other nationalities. And while on their trek, Israel additionally absorbed 32,000 Midianite virgins (Numbers 31:18 and 31:35, also see Deuteronomy 20:14).
Israel came to be in Egypt because of a famine in the Levant (Genesis 37 and on). Just prior to that famine, Israel had produced the ever important art of dream-interpretation (throughout the Bible the Lord communicates with people via dreams), personified by Joseph, the penultimate son of Jacob and first born of his beloved Rachel. Apparently, this highly valued art of translating the images of the subconscious mind into images of the conscious mind didn't do much for the welfare of the rest of Israel, and this commodity was sold to a caravan of Midianite (or Ishmaelite) merchants, who introduced it to Egypt, where it too failed to impress anyone. That is, until the Pharaoh (who was not just the chief politician but more so the chief priest of Egypt) found that it not merely predicted the famine but was also able to devise a way to avert Egypt's imminent bankruptcy. Joseph became viceroy and was married to the daughter of the priest of On (or: this art was incorporated into the skill set of Egypt's primary wisdom school), and not long after that, Egypt was able to acquire the whole set of Israeli tribes and harvest these skills for economic gain. This in turn saved Israel from the famine. Joseph's Egyptian wife bore him his two sons Ephraim and Manasseh, and both became the patriarchs of their respective half-tribes — "half" because Joseph counts as the real tribal head, but also because both were half-Egyptian.
Abraham's and later Israel's vast economic wealth was not earned but voluntary and involuntarily incurred from Egypt, whose economy had suffered the consequences of its failure to transcend from stage one to stage two (Genesis 12:16, Exodus 12:36). Canaanite loot as source of richness was strenuously shunned (Joshua 7:1, Genesis 14:23), which seems to suggest that trade should not be conducted in order to accumulate wealth (which lowers entropy) but rather to disperse it (which raises entropy).
The economic engine of every state is its tax system but Israel, uniquely, employed no tax collectors other than anonymous offer boxes in the temple (Luke 21:1-4). Israel's economic engine was based on the Canaanite tradition of voluntary contribution, which Abraham encountered with Melchizedek (Genesis 14:20, 28:22, Leviticus 27:30-33, Numbers 18:21-24). The latter was a priest of El Elyon, long before Abraham arrived, and in his priestly order, Jesus would be high priest (Hebrews 7). Melchizedek's name means King of Righteousness, and righteousness (צדק, sadek) was the very same attribute which the Lord ascribed to Abraham on account of his affirmation of YHWH. King Melchizedek's city Salem became the Jebusite stronghold of Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5:6), which indicates that Israel's economic engine as well as its political capital hailed from native Canaanite structures.
Moses' primary education was Egyptian but he didn't encounter the Lord until he was in Midian, "shepherding the flocks" of his priestly father-in-law Jethro (Exodus 3), who also designed Israel's celebrated judicial system (Exodus 18:12-27). Israel's signature tabernacle complex was a near perfect copy of the battle camp of Rameses II. The first temple was built and partly funded by Phoenicians (1 Kings 5:1). The second temple was ordered and funded by the Persian king (Ezra 6:3-5).
Israel's and later Judah's royal dynasty (which culminates in the Messiah) was probably more than half foreign: king David's great-grandmother Ruth was a Moabite and Solomon's mother Bathsheba was almost certainly Hittite (2 Samuel 11:3, see Ezekiel 16:3). The mother of Solomon's son and successor Rehoboam was an Ammonite called Naamah(1 Kings 14:21).
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, His identity and arrival was independently determined by means of the science of cosmology, by an untold number of Magi (an ethnic group of Babylon, similar to the Chaldeans). Like Israel, Jesus too spent His formative years in Egypt. His story became as infused with responses to Homer and the Greco-Roman traditions as the Torah is with answers to Babylonian-Persian stories.
Etymology of the name Abraham
In Genesis 17:5, the Lord promises Abram that he would be the father of many nations (אב המון גוים, 'ab hamon goyim) and marks this by changing his name to Abraham. Likewise, the Lord promises that Abraham's half-sister and wife Sarai would "become nations" or rather: "become international" (היתה לגוים, heyata le'goyim) and changed her name to Sarah (17:16).
The name Abraham (אברהם) follows from the name Abram (אברם) by inserting the letter ה (he) in front of the final ם (mem), and the name Sarah (שרה) follows from Sarai (שרי) by replacing the final י (yod) with the same letter ה (he).
This letter ה (he) is one of a few Hebrew letters that may represent both a consonant and a vowel, and the Hebrew invention of vowel notation lifted the art of writing out of the realm of the esoteric and made it available to the common man (Exodus 19:6). This newly invented Instrument of Mass Synchronization is probably why the Semites gained the upper hand over Egypt and it's probably no coincidence that the name of the Lord, יהוה or YHWH consists of only those vowel-consonant symbols, and contains twice this potent letter ה (he). The form יו (Yu) — that is YHWH without the ה (he) — would thus be on a par with the names Abram and Sarai, and the existence of compound names like Joab (יואב) and Jochebed (יוכבד) demonstrates that this shorter form was indeed used.
The names Sarai and Sarah both stem from the root שרר (sarar), which possibly means to rule or to be strong. The final י (yod) of the original name Sarai suggests a possessive form: my strength or strength(s) of, whereas the new name Sarah reflects the general idea of ruling or being strong. The names Sarai and Sarah reflect the same core idea, but the form Sarai reflects locality and the form Sarah reflects universality.
The same transition between locality and universality is reflected in the names Abram and Abraham, which are both based on the root אבר ('abar), meaning to be strong (or to be able to protect; see below). The name Abram consists of the root plus ם, which could be construed as the masculine third person plural pronominal suffix: their. The name Abraham consists of the same root but now followed by the independent masculine third person plural personal pronoun: הם, they or them. Like Sarai, the name Abram seems to denote a nation's private strength, whereas the name Abraham, like Sarah, reflects the strength that arises from synchronicity among states.
The core of the name Abraham comes from the exquisite root אבר ('br):
The name Abraham is often reported to mean Father Of Many Nations but that's obviously incorrect (the phrase 'ab hamon goyim is not remotely similar to our name and contains no "r" while our name does). In stead it means Their Strength or Their Protection and reflects the security that arises from synchronicity among states.
Another detail worthy of note is that the first and last letters of the name אברהם (Abraham) are often used as formatives that do not change the meaning of the core word. These two letters obviously aren't inconsequential formative letters in our name, but if we remove them anyway, what remains is ברה (bara), the assumed root of the noun ברית (berit), meaning covenant.