1. In dealing with the life of Abraham, as with the patriarchal period in general, we must bear in mind that the age to be investigated is, relatively speaking, prehistoric. The available documents, in their final shape at least, belong to an age removed by an interval of several centuries from the events. The narrative which is generally held by critics to be the earliest, that of the Jehovist, seems indeed to be based on ancient popular tradition, but it describes the age of the patriarchs as in some essential respects so closely similar to later periods that it can only be regarded as a picture of primitive life and religion drawn in the light of a subsequent age. We have here to do with the earliest form of history, traditional folklore about primitive personages and events, worked up according to some preconceived design by a devout literary artist. The question at once naturally arises how these narratives are to be employed and interpreted. As is well known, some very extreme conclusions have been advanced by critics, as, for example, that the patriarchs are not real historical personages at all, but mere personifications of particular Semitic tribes. Some writers maintain that “Abraham,” “Isaac,” and “Jacob” are titles of primitive tribal deities. It may at once be pointed out that while no convincing reasons have ever been alleged for doubting the historic personality of the great patriarchs, there are some considerations which materially support the traditional view. There are of course historical points respecting which the verdict of a purely literary criticism cannot be final, and its more or less provisional conclusions need to be supplemented or even corrected by archæological data.
(1) The discoveries of recent years have admittedly shown that during the age in which Hebrew tradition places the patriarchs there was much more intercourse between Palestine and the Far East than was formerly suspected-a circumstance which increases the probability that a genuine historical substratum underlies the patriarchal narratives.
(2) Again, there is a striking element of internal consistency in the story of the patriarchs. It fits in with known facts; it accounts for subsequent developments. The entire course of events in the Mosaic period seems to presuppose the nomad and migratory stage which tradition connects with the person of Abraham and his immediate descendants. As Professor Kittel, following Dillmann, points out, “the religious position of Moses stands before us unsupported and incomprehensible,” unless we accept the tradition which traces to the patriarchs the rudiments at least of a higher religion and the first tentative occupation of the promised land. The fact-basis which underlies the story of Abraham's call may be his migration from Chaldæa, dictated by motives of “vague dissatisfaction with prevalent religious beliefs and practices, rather than a new clearly conceived idea of God.” Thus we may hold it to be intrinsically probable that so unique a history as that of the elect people had precisely such a beginning as the Book of Genesis relates.
The wells of Beersheba in the wide frontier-valley of Palestine are indisputable witnesses of the life of Abraham.1 [Note: A. P. Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, 148.]
Before there was an Israelitish nation and commonwealth, before there was a Mosaic law as the foundation for that commonwealth, there was formed between the heart of the Father in heaven and a solitary heart, which sought God above nature, a covenant of personal intercourse, of fatherly disclosures and filial acts of confidence, which continued and was developed as a sacred tradition-first in a family of friends of God, and then in a nation growing out of the family; and that covenant was the germ of the religion of salvation for all the nations of the earth. That is the element of most certain truth in the Biblical story of Abraham which the penetration of the Apostle discovers.1 [Note: W. J. Moulton, The Witness of Israel, 36.]
2. While, however, in receiving the narrative as substantially true, though coloured by later prophetic conceptions of Israel's history, we are accepting an account which is entirely consistent with all that we otherwise know respecting the redemptive methods of Almighty God, we have no interest in denying a certain element of idealization in the description of the primitive period. There may possibly be an element of truth even in the view that the figures of the patriarchs are tribal personifications. We may agree with Baethgen that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are historical persons, but that “these personalities are invested with the characteristics which afterwards marked the tribes descended from them.” It is likely enough that the great figures of the remote past were made the subjects of many popular legends and traditions, and it is no doubt possible that to a certain extent a tribal history may have been expressed in a personal and individual form.
The substance of the narrative is, no doubt, historical; though the characters and experiences seem to be idealized. We cannot, for instance, suppose that we have, so to say, a photographic record of all that was said or done; however difficult it may be to estimate the strength of memory and of oral tradition in these patriarchal times, when the conditions were so different from our own, it is scarcely possible that the recollection of such minutiæ as are here often recorded should have been transmitted unaltered during the many centuries that intervened between the time at which the patriarchs lived, and that at which their biographies were ultimately committed to writing.2 [Note: S. R. Driver, The Book of Genesis, 143.]
(1) The narratives of Genesis present in the main a faithful picture of the general conditions of patriarchal life, especially in respect of its moral characteristics. A Hebrew writer, we must remember, would be continually in a position to observe with his own eyes the habits and customs of primitive civilization; among the tribes of Bedouin Arabs on the east side of the Jordan, some of the unchanging features of nomadic shepherd life may be witnessed to this day. The oldest narrative, though coloured by prophetic idealism, gives a vivid portrait of patriarchal life: its simple forms of worship, its family priesthood, its sacrificial feasts, its sacred customs and social institutions. Moreover, there are features in the story which point to a comparatively low standard of ethical and religious development, especially the use of cunning and violence, together with a certain element of sexual licence. We notice also obvious traces of the close affinity that existed between the religion of the Hebrew patriarchs and the common ideas and practices of the neighbouring Semitic tribes; the notion, for instance, that the revelation of Deity was confined to certain definite spots such as Shechem, Bethel, Hebron, and Beersheba; the reverence paid to sacred pillars, trees, and other emblems which were regarded as monuments and tokens of a special presence of God; and the use of teraphim for oracular purposes, a custom which apparently lingered to a comparatively late period. These indications of a very rudimentary religious condition are valuable, not only as enhancing the credibility of the narratives, but also as deepening our consciousness of the Divine influence which actually guided the Hebrew race from the first, controlling the development of faith, accepting what was rude and primitive as a needful stage in a constant upward movement, and gradually raising the ancestors of Israel above the general level of their age.
(2) In the patriarchal tradition we may reasonably contend that we have a faithful representation of the two principal factors which determined the distinctive character of Israel's religion: viz. a personal and redemptive operation of God in history on the one hand, and the response of human faith on the other. If we wished to select the master-thought of the Old Testament, we should be justified in saying that it is belief in the providence and direct action of the living God. Certainly this was the point of view from which the writers of the Pentateuchal narratives described the early stages of the history; it was the standpoint from which the prophets reviewed and interpreted Israel's wonderful past.
The intense interest in the narratives of Abraham, which has led some earnest souls to inaugurate the so-called warfare between archæology and criticism, springs, of course, from the part that the conception of Abraham has played in the development of the Jewish and Christian faiths. Abraham as an ideal is, however, a solid part of the history of the world's best religion, and the permanent value of the ideal is independent of the results of criticism of the patriarchal narratives or the investigations of archæologists. The ideal was real, whether woven about a mythical, a half-legendary, or an historical character. It represented for centuries Israel's conception of her own call and mission. It was not, however, a constant quantity, and the fact that it varied is true, whether Abraham was real or not. To J, Abraham was the ideal devout nomad, who was obedient to Yahweh's call (Gen_12:1 ff.), who believed in Yahweh and it was accounted to him righteousness (Gen_15:6); the type of a hospitable host, whom Yahweh deigns to visit (Gen_18:1 ff.). To J, Abraham was the intercessor for the innocent, who would shield the Judge of the earth from the suspicion of having done wrong (Gen_18:25). To E, Abraham was an ideal prophet of God, whom God protected, whose intercession He heard (Gen_20:1-18), and whose faith did not waver in the face of the hardest sacrifice (Gen_22:1-24). To P, Abraham was the great ancestor of the nation, with whom God confirmed a covenant by the sacred and perpetual rite of circumcision (Gen_17:1-27). Later Jews seem to have regarded Abraham as a man so holy that all his physical descendants were necessarily saints or children of God (cf. Dan_7:25; Joh_8:33; Joh_8:39). Paul regarded Abraham as an ideal exponent of faith, to whom souls of similar faith were akin (Rom_4:16); the great Johannine author regarded him as a moral ideal, to whom men of a similar moral stamp were related (Joh_8:39 b), and the idea very likely goes back to Jesus Himself. To the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Abraham is the type of the ideal world-pilgrim, or Christian, never satisfied with the transitory, who “sought for a city that hath the foundations” (Heb_11:10). A Jewish tradition embodied in Yalqut represents Abraham as the redeeming father, who will one day go to Gehenna and rescue from hell his unfortunate children who have been cast in thither.1 [Note: G. A. Barton, in Journal of Biblical Literature, xxviii. (1909) 166.]