🔼The name Abram: Summary
- Exalted Father
- Their Shield, Their Protection
- From (1) אב ('ab), father, and (2) רום (rum), to be elevated.
- From (1) the verb אבר (abar), to be strong or to protect, and (2) the 3rd person plural pronominal suffix הם (am), their.
🔼The name Abram in the Bible
There's only one man named Abram in the Bible, namely the famous son of Terah, who left Ur of the Chaldeans and headed for a land which YHWH would show him (Genesis 11:31). Since Abram is the first complex character in the Bible, a lot of the Bible's primeurs are his. However, Abram is typically not the first to call upon the name of YHWH, because that went on as far back as the generation of Enosh, the grandson of Adam and Eve (4:26). He was also not the first to worship the one and only God, because when he arrived in Canaan he found Melchizedek well engaged as priest of El Elyon (14:18). He was also not the first to be called righteous (15:6), because that was Noah (6:9) and in retrospect Abel (Matthew 23:35).
Abram is nevertheless the first on record to be approached by the pre-incarnate Word of the Lord (15:1), the first to be called Hebrew (14:13) and the first to engage in international commerce. He's the first to itinerate and circulate (although his famous journey had primarily to do with learning: see our article on the name Hebrew), the first to be rich (in cattle and precious metals; Genesis 13:2), the first to compete and to establish a peaceful economic pact (with Lot; 13:6-12), the first to view the entire world as his oyster (13:14-15) and to whom the sky was the limit (15:5).
Abram was the first to pay property tax, namely 10 percent (to Melchizedek; 14:20), and this was adopted into Israel's national policy (Genesis 28:22, Numbers 18:26, Hebrews 7:5). The first time the Bible speaks of a commercial purchase is in Genesis 17, where circumcision is instituted as sign of the great covenant (see our article on the verb περιτεμνω, peritemno, to circumcise), and the Lord renames Abram as Abraham and orders the inclusion into the covenant of all the men Abram had acquired via purchase (מקנה, miqna, which is related to the name Cain). The first monetary transaction occurs as restitution for Sarah's disgrace by Abimelech (Genesis 20:16; because Abram was also the first to pimp off his wife, twice: Genesis 20 and 12:11-20).
The first actual purchase with money described in the Bible is Abraham's flamboyantly negotiated acquisition of the cave of Machpelah from Ephron, son of Zohar of Heth. Abraham wanted that cave and wanted to pay for it in order to properly bury Sarah (Genesis 23). He paid 400 shekels for it (23:16), according to the "passing of trade" (עבר לסחר, 'aber lasahar, from the same root as the name Hebrew) — the shekel probably started out as a standard weight (proper monetary coinage was probably invented by the Lydians in the 8th century BC), although it's a mystery how this standard was obtained or maintained. Still, a commercial standard based on the common usage of a unit of wealth demonstrates an advanced level of social sophistication.
🔼Abram the camel man
A somewhat more hairy unit of wealth was the camel, but where the English word "camel" is solely reserved for that humped beast of burden, the Hebrew cognate גמל (gamal), meaning camel, comes from the identical verb גמל (gamal), which means to trade or invest. In other words: the Hebrew noun גמל (gamal) does not denote a specific biological genus, it describes a particular economic function, namely that of investing and long-distance trading (and see our article on these words for a lengthy look at the camel in the Bible).
The camel too gets its Biblical introduction in the Abram cycle, namely when the Egyptian Pharaoh reimburses Abram for the Sarai incident with sheep, cattle, donkeys, servants and camels (12:16). The next time Abraham's proverbial camels are mentioned is when Abraham sends his chief of staff (probably Eliezer) north to his family's land with "ten" camels and the whole of Abraham's wealth in his hand (24:10), in order to obtain a wife for Isaac (and note the emphasis on the personal freedom upon which all trade is based: 24:5-8).
The first time the verb גמל (gamal) is used, surprisingly enough, is in the statement, "The child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned" (21:8). Since the name Isaac means joy or fun, this statement also explains that the result of international trade is play, leisure and entertainment.
🔼Abram and contemporaries
Abram is traditionally dated very early in the second millennium BC (around 1900 BC) but since Abram's story almost wholly comprises events that mean much more than their simple occurrence (most of what happens to Abram has a strong symbolic significance) it seems much more likely that the literary character of Abram was never intended to portray one historical individual but rather a turning point in the history of humanity in general (read our article on the name Abraham for more on this). Jesus' enigmatic statement that Abraham isn't dead but alive (Matthew 22:32) also suggests that Abra(ha)m is more than just a historical person. And the progression of generations between Noah and Israel suggests the same:
According to Genesis 11:10-26, when Abraham was born, in the year 292 AF (AF = After the Flood), Noah was still alive and would live for another 58 years (Noah died in 350 AF, at age 950). Noah's son and Abraham's ancestor Shem died in 502 AF, at the age of 600, and when that happened, Abraham had already expired at the age of 175, in the year 467 AF. Abraham was survived not only by his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Shem, also by his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Shelah (who died in 470 AF at age 433) and his great-great-great-great-grandfather Eber (who died in 531 AF at age 464).
The first one to die after the flood was Abraham's great-great-great-grandfather Peleg, in the year 340 AF (at the age of 239, one year before Abraham's grandfather, Nahor, who died at age 148). That means that until Abraham was 48 years old, no male in his direct line had died since the flood. They were all still there — eleven proverbial patriarchs from Noah to Abraham, living curiously parallel lives and sharing a single unified post-diluvial age. Four of these patriarchs had intimate memories of the antediluvian world; Noah could tell six hundred years' worth of stories and Shem, Ham and Japheth a century. It must have been exceedingly frightening when everybody all of a sudden started dying, and in no particular order. With the trauma of the flood still vivid, this new age of death must have seemed like another great wipe out. The story doesn't tell but perhaps this dying of the patriarchs was the reason why Terah started to move in the first place.
Abraham was 75 when he left Haran (in 367 AF, a hundred years before his death), 86 when his son Ishmael was born (in 378 AF) and 100 when Isaac was born (in 392 AF). Isaac was 60 when Jacob and Esau were born (in 452 AF). The boys were 15 when Abraham died (in 467 AF). And when Esau was 40 (in 492 AF) he began to take Hittite wives, which grieved his parents to the point that they sent Jacob off to Paddan-aram for wives from Abraham's brother Nahor's house, which thus was roughly around the time that old man Shem finally kicked the bucket (in 502 AF).
That means that Abraham's great-great-great-great-grandfather Eber — the proverbial über-Hebrew and the last of the post-diluvial arch-patriarchs — died roughly when the sons of Jacob were all born and Israel, in her pre-Egypt proto-form, was essentially completed (in 531 AF), and strongly suggests that the period between Noah and Israel should not be understood to play on a stage of linear historicity.
🔼Etymology and meaning of the name Abram
There are two ways to go about the name Abram. Traditionally this name is interpreted to consist of two elements, the first of which would be אב ('ab), meaning father:
The noun אב ('ab) means father, but describes primarily a social relationship rather than a biological one. That social fatherhood was the defining quality of the community's alpha male, the one around whom all economy revolved and from whom emanated all instructions by which the 'sons' (בן, ben) operated. It's unclear where this word אב ('ab) comes from but the verb abu means to decide.
The second part of our name is traditionally considered to be part of the great רום (rum)-cluster of names:
The verb רום (rum) means to be high or high up in either a physical, social or even attitudinal sense, and may also refer to the apex in a natural process: the being ripe and ready-for-harvest of fruits. Subsequently, our verb may imply a state beyond ripe (higher than ripe, overripe), which thus refers to rotting and being maggot riddled. This means that to the ancients, higher did not simply mean better, and an arrogant political status that was higher than it should be equaled rot and worms (Acts 12:23).
Derived nouns, such as רום (rum) and related forms such as רמה (rama), describe height or pride. Noun רמות (ramut) describes some high thing. The noun ארמון ('armon) refers to a society's apex: a citadel or palace. The noun ראם (re'em) describes the wild ox, which was named possibly for the same reason why we moderns call a rising market a "bull" market. The similar verb ראם (ra'am) means to rise.
The important noun רמון (rimmon) means pomegranate and the pomegranate became the symbol for harvest-ready fruit (see our full dictionary article for more on this). Overripe items might suffer the noun רמה (rimma), worm or maggot, or the verb רמם (ramam), to be wormy.
Hence both BDB Theological Dictionary and NOBSE Study Bible Name List translate this name as Exalted Father, and Jones' Dictionary of Old Testament Proper Names reads Father Of Elevation.
Reading Abram as אב plus רם works fine in an absolute sense, but in its structural contexts it falls short. The name Abram relates to Abraham the way Sarai relates to Sarah; the latter two names are basically variations of the same word, and we would expect a similar mild variation to mark the difference between Abram and Abraham as well. If we then assume that the name Abram and thus Abraham starts with the element אב ('ab), meaning father, the rest of the name Abraham would be רהם (rhm) and that is not a word in Biblical Hebrew. Of course it's possible that רהם (rhm) was indeed a word but simply one that wasn't used by any of the Biblical authors, but that would mean that Exalted Father Abram promoted to Abraham: the father of something so unimportant that nobody ever mentions it.
Since all that is quite unlikely, it's much more probable that neither of the names Abram and Abraham begins with אב ('ab), and that neither are verbally related to God's promise that Abraham would be the father of many nations (a phrase which in Hebrew is אב המון גוים, 'ab hamon goyim, which is clearly quite unlike either of our names).
Much more plausible is that both our names consist of אבר plus הם (meaning they or them) in case of Abraham and just ם (meaning their) in case of Abram. That means that Abram and Abraham basically mean the same: Abar Of Them, for Abraham and Their Abar for Abram (and read our article on the name Abraham for a possible explanation of the difference)
The core of both names comes from the root אבר ('br), meaning to be strong or to protect:
The verb אבר ('br) means to be strong or firm, particularly in a defensive way (rather than offensive). The derived nouns אבר ('eber) and אברה ('ebra) refer to the pinion(s) that make up a bird's wings, which in turn means that the ancients saw avian wings as means to protect rather than to fly with (the signature trait of angels, hence, is not an ability to fly but a tendency to protect). The verb אבר ('abar) describes activities done with pinions, which is to fly or to protect. The adjective אביר ('abbir), meaning strong in a defensive way; protective.
🔼Abra(ha)m and Zarathustra
From a scientific perspective, it's quite unclear whether Abra(ha)m was a historical figure and the same can be said about the famous Persian prophet Zarathustra (or Zoroaster in Greek). And even if it is assumed that both were historical figures, it's unclear when each may have lived. But what is clear is that both are remembered as having played a crucial role in the formation of monotheism.
The stories about the Hebrew patriarchs are probably very old, but the written format in which they survive today stem most probably from the time that the Hebrew scribes were in exile in Babylon. The Bible tells us that there was considerable interaction between the wisdom schools of the Persians and the Hebrews (see the stories of Daniel and Esther) and it's unthinkable that the scribes who penned down the Bible in its present form were unacquainted with or even unmoved by the philosophies and teachings of Zarathustra. In fact, much of the Torah appears to be charged with a subtle, subliminal commentary on the prophet's visions. This respectful attitude towards Zoroastrianism was maintained even up to the time of Christ, as the Matthean gospel attributes the scientific discovery of the Messiah to Magi (Persian priests of the Zoroastrian persuasion; Matthew 2:1), although the gospels themselves had the more relevant objective of responding to the Greco-Roman sentiments of their own time (see our article on the name Homer).
It's not wholly certain what the name Zarathustra might mean but scholars generally agree that it consists of two parts and that the second part means camel (good camel, golden camel, angry camel, driver of camel, etcetera). As we stated above, in antiquity the camel was not simply a familiar beast but rather the unit of international exchange, which suggests that the prophet was not named after some animal but rather after the ways and merits of international trade.
The first part of the name Zarathustra is the mystery bit; we don't even know for sure whether it's "Zarath-" or "Zara-", which means that the second part is either ushtra, meaning camel, or thushtra, which, we can't help notice, has some phonetic similarity to the name Terah, which doesn't seem to mean much in Hebrew. But Abram and his family were natives of Chaldea, on the border between the Semitic and Indo-European language areas, and their names may in fact be not Semitic but Indo-European and transliterated into Hebrew in such a way that they seem Semitic (something similar was done to Levite names such as Moses and Aaron, which were most probably originally Egyptian names, made to look Semitic).
The 'ab-part of the name Abram may therefore be Zoroastrian as well and since Abram was called Hebrew, which literally denotes someone who wades through and arrives on the dry side, what readily jumps to mind is the word Abas.
Abas is the Avestan word for "the waters" which in Zoroastrianism clearly corresponds to the Torahic waters of the first three days of creation. This word Abas comes from a proto-Indo-Iranian stem "ap-" meaning water, and the name Abram — ap plus the Persian cognate of rum — might have been designed to specifically remind of the two, later three, great water walks of the Bible: the Spirit of God hovering over the primordial waters (Genesis 1:2), Noah and company floating on the great flood (Genesis 7:17), and finally, as obvious fulfillment of the previous two, Jesus' walk on water (Matthew 14:25).
The Greeks appear to have thought that the first part of the name Zarathustra was "Zara-" because they transliterated it as Zoroaster (Zoro Aster = Gold Star, the second part being similar to the name Esther, also Persian). Whatever the "Zarath-" or "Zara-" part of the name Zarathustra might have meant, it bears an uncanny resemblance to the name Sarai, belonging to Abram's wife and half-sister. Some scholars even believe that the first part of the name Zarathustra contains a Vedic element har, which immediately brings to mind the name Haran (the -an part being a very common Hebrew formative extension). Perhaps the Hebrew authors were bound by historical events and names and all these similarities are coincidences, but probably more likely is that the Hebrew authors reflected the real past of mankind in forms they chose freely. More attractive still is the possibility that these names reflect concepts that stem from very deep antiquity, when language was being formed by the same forces that formed the rest of humanity.
🔼Standing blameless with great joy
The primary symbol of Zoroastrianism is the Faravahar, the famous winged disk that still dominates the symbology of modern Iran. It is thought to denote a fravashi, a person's private spirit, perhaps not unlike the personal angel recognized by the New Testament authors (Matthew 18:10, Acts 12:15). It's unclear what the word fravashi precisely means but it's generally considered to derive from the element var-, which may mean to choose (so that fravashi means He Who Chooses), or to cover (so, He Who Covers). That's again significant because the name Lot means precisely that: Covering.
The Bible also obviously recognizes personal angels of whole nations (Exodus 23:23, Daniel 10:20) and although the origin of the Faravahar is formally obscure, it may very well represent the spirit of free global exchange; the fravashi of Abraham. Perhaps the names Abram and Abraham are originally Persian but were transliterated into Hebrew to reflect the element אבר ('abar; see above), meaning to use wings or feathers (in order to protect).
The Faravahar is commonly depicted with a little man sitting in the disk. This is thought to be Asshur, the chief deity of Assyria. It's not clear what idea the divine name Asshur may originally have reflected, but in Hebrew it is nearly identical to the name Asher (son of Jacob with Zilpah) and means to go straight (just) or to be happy, as in the statement באשרי כי אשרוני be'asheri kay asheruny: "in my happiness they'll deem me happy" (Genesis 30:13). Abraham's son-of-the-promise was named Isaac, meaning joy, which clearly reflects the same or a similar sentiment.